Among the known risks for heavy drinking among college students are positive alcohol-related attitudes and drinking norms, as well as online alcohol marketing. Increasingly students engage both through social media. The current study investigated whether there is a direct effect of peers or marketing on drinking behavior. It considered whether an indirect effect of peers and marketing exists through drinking norms and permissive attitudes toward drinking. Moderation of these effects by gender and race was also tested.
Using focus groups and cognitive interviews, the study authors developed and piloted a self-report measure of alcohol related content posted by participants and their friends on social networking sites. After refining the tool, study participants were enrolled from residence halls and sociology classes and surveyed about friends’ social media content that promoted alcohol use as well as alcohol marketing receptivity. Perceived drinking norms were also measured by asking how many drinks a typical college student consumes, on average, when partying. Permissive drinking attitudes were also assessed, followed by participant self-reported alcohol use.
Results of 682 college student participants found that peers directly influence student drinking through alcohol-related social media posts. As exposure to this content increases, so too does one’s drinking behavior. Having more friends who drink was correlated with more permissive attitudes about alcohol and different perceptions of what “normal” student alcohol consumption looks like. Alcohol marketing receptivity was related to increased alcohol use and perceptions that typical student drinking is greater. The study found men are more influenced by peer drinking than women, on average, and African Americans are more influenced by peer drinking than by alcohol marketing.
A primary limitation of this study is its reliance on mostly first year student participants. In some prior studies drinking patterns have been shown to differ for other undergraduates. Causality cannot be determined because it is a correlational study.
Take Away: Friends’ social media posts about alcohol, online and traditional alcohol marketing all influence college student drinking. Social media education campaigns are recommended to counter these influences.
Robertson, A.A., McKinney, C., Walker, C. & Coleman, A. (2018). Peer, social media, and alcohol marketing influences on college student drinking. Journal of College Student Health, 66(5), 369-379. doi.org/10.1080/07448481.2018.1431903