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The Influence of Social Media on Addictive Behaviors in College Students

With nearly 90% of college-aged young adults utilizing social media, researchers were interested in reviewing the literature that explored the relationship between social media and substance use. Substance use posts on social media (including alcohol, tobacco, and illicit substances) are increasingly common among college students.  Recent research has indicated that social media posts of substance use content are predictive of a poster’s usage and problems. These substance use-related posts are often glamorized and the behaviors are endorsed by peers. In many cases, alcohol is depicted in photos rather than text, while being shown in a positive context highlighting drinking in a sociable and affirmative light. Positive social validation for these posts is likely to increase the frequency and intensity of students’ substance use-related behaviors over time. Positive reinforcement for these posts is also likely to encourage risky behaviors. One study found that students posted about alcohol 40% more by the end of their freshman year than prior to entering college. In addition to the impact that these posts have on the poster, they are also influencing the norms of others who view the posts and may increase the viewers’ consumption. Two studies have shown that viewing alcohol-related social media content significantly predicted positive attitudes and drinking norms towards consumption, as well as greater intentions to drink.

Take away: The use of social media has created a new source of social influence that research suggests contributes to increases in substance use. Researchers and prevention specialists should consider developing interventions that target substance use posts and misperceptions in an effort to reduce consumption rates among college students who post the content, as well as their social networking peers who view the content.

Steers, M.N., Moreno, M.A., & Neighbors, C. (2016) The Influence of Social Media on Addictive Behaviors in College Students. Current Addiction Reports.

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