Findings from a recent study of 1,563 10th grade students conducted by USC public health officials revealed that social networking sites play a role in perpetuating teenage alcohol consumption and smoking.
“We’ve been interested for some time in trying to understand how friends influence each other in the adolescent context, particularly in school,” Dr. Thomas W. Valente, professor at USC’s Keck School of Medicine and the study’s lead investigator, said. “The purpose of this research was in part to understand the mechanism of adolescent smoking and drinking, and in part to help develop better methods of intervention for such behaviors.”
Based on long-term surveys of 10th grade students from Los Angeles County, Valente and his team found that teens in peer groups that did not drink alcohol were more susceptible to influence from online evidence of other peers engaging in risky behavior.
“The availability of negative peer influences is now increasing because you can have a lot of different types of friends online,” Valente said. “People who are susceptible to peer influence will be influenced by the people they are friends with online.”
Researchers said they were surprised by some of the discoveries. Despite teenagers being influenced by online friends, they are still more influenced by friends they spend time with in person.
“We did not suspect that seeing pictures of friends would have such a large impact on adolescent behavior because there is a boundary, the computer interface, between two friends who use online social networking,” said Dr. Grace C. Huang, one of the authors of the study. “We’ve seen, repeatedly, that in-person friendships allow risky behaviors to be shared more readily. Still, given the barrier present in online friendships, there is an association between online activity and risky teenage behavior.”
The study is not conclusive about any relationships between teenage behavior and use of social networking sites. It also did not find a link between a teen’s smoking and drinking and the number of friends that teen had on social networking sites.
And though the students surveyed were high schoolers, some USC students said that the results can apply to their own lives.
“Websites such as Facebook allow you to see pictures of people who are considered to be popular,” said Kathryn Rosenfeld, a sophomore majoring in chemical engineering. “There’s always the want to get as many ‘likes’ as possible because the amount of ‘likes’ you receive quantifies your popularity.”
Others believe Facebook sets social standards students strive to reach.
“What you see on [Facebook] sets the norm and you try follow it,” said Nick Entin, a freshman majoring in computer science.
According to Valente, due to the nature of the survey, there is some bias. The study was only conducted in one school district, and only students who received parental consent could be included in the research.
“One of the things you have to do to conduct this kind of research is to obtain parental consent from each one of the students,” Valente said. “That creates some concern because the people that don’t get their forms signed might have a higher prevalence of the behaviors you are interested in. In other words, people who don’t get their consent forms turned in are more likely to be smokers or drinkers.”
According to Huang, further research could be done to determine further differences to friends students hang out with in-person, and those they are only connected with online.