Young people are exposed to a “concerning” amount of social media content which promotes alcohol, e-cigarette and other drug use, which could be a gateway to substance use, a new study argues.
The study, led by PhD candidate Brienna Rutherford and published in the journal Addiction, reviewed 73 studies, which covered 16 million substance-related posts across Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Pinterest, TikTok and Weibo.
Ms Rutherford said they found 76 per cent of the posts depicted substance use positively, which was “concerning” because young people were the most vulnerable and most prolific consumers of social media — spending an average of eight hours a day online.
“People are making substance use look fun and riskless, which is the big concern because there’s not a factor of what the potential harms could be,” she said.
“There’s evidence to show teens who are exposed to high levels of substance use are more likely to use and develop issues with alcohol, tobacco and cannabis.”
Ms Rutherford said more needed to be done to regulate user-generated and advertising content which depicts substances on social media.
“They’ve tried to remove hashtags that would explicitly reference drug use but unfortunately kids are quite clever, they’re getting around it, they’re renaming drugs, coming up with slang,” she said.
‘Social media furthered my drug use’
Jane (not her real name) told the ABC she experimented with substances in the past when she was a teenager and had started because her friends were doing so.
But she said it was social media content that encouraged her to move from using marijuana to psychedelic drugs.
“There’s these things that say this is what it looks like when you’re high, I used to see them all the time, and think that’s really cool,” she said.
“I would say my drug use furthered because of social media.”
Jane said videos of people consuming substances encouraged her to believe it was “cool”.
“On social media I get a lot of people holding vapes, or videos where they’re not talking about vaping but they vape during the video, so I really think that influenced me switching [from smoking] to vaping,” she said.
Jane also saw “funny videos of people getting blackout wasted” which “made her think it was cool at the time”.
Dark marketing targeting young people, study finds
In a Victoria Health, University of Queensland and Monash University study published earlier this year, 204 Victorians aged 16-25 identified 5,169 examples of advertising for unhealthy food, alcohol, and gambling on their social media feeds over two weeks.
Of those ads, 97 per cent were considered “dark marketing” to some extent, which means only those targeted by the advertisers could see the ads, and they were not published on the advertiser’s accounts.
University of Queensland associate professor Nic Carah said they found a correlation between the number of alcohol-related “interests” Meta automatically generated and attached to a person’s profile, and their pre-existing alcohol consumption.
Victorian woman Sufeeyatuz Zahra Jali, 20, said when she was scrolling through social media she saw “a lot of advertisements that romanticise drinking and unhealthy habits”.
“It makes me quite worried knowing it’s not only me seeing that constant exposure to unhealthy habits, so it makes me feel unsafe,” she said.
Ted Noffs Foundation manager Lachlan Dean said the youth drug treatment provider found that a young person’s five closest friends tended to have the biggest influence on their decisions.
He said young people also used substances because they wanted to take risks and push boundaries, or had heard from others they were coping mechanisms.
But social media content that teaches viewers how to access substances online was “a concerning trend” impacting substance use, he said, and the broader problem was the normalisation of social acceptance of alcohol use and other drug use in society.