Updated: Sep 29, 2021
Erin A. Vogel, PhD
University of Southern California
Imagine you’re a teenager scrolling through Instagram and you see your classmates at a party. Neon lights are glowing. Everyone is smiling and laughing, drinks in hand. In the background, a cloud of vapor winds its way through the dark, crowded room. You open up Snapchat. It’s finals week at school, and a friend-of-a-friend is offering vapes for sale. All you have to do is message him. On TikTok, you’re greeted with a video of other teenagers driving around, sharing a joint with the windows up. A thick haze fills their car and the screen of your phone.
What are you learning about how to have fun? How to cope with stress? How to grow into adulthood?
“Peer pressure” has long been known to be a risk factor for substance use. Skyrocketing rates of youth vaping (i.e., use of e-cigarettes such as JUUL and Puff Bar) have reminded us just how much influence substance use trends can have on teenagers. On social media, teenagers are bombarded with content related to substance use, such as party pictures and vaping videos. Because social media typically shows the sunny side of things, substance use is shown as fun and attractive, without negative consequences.
Over the past three years, my research has focused on how teens experience social media content related to substance use. In one study, teenagers in California viewed social media posts that were related or unrelated to vaping. Even short-term exposure to vaping-related posts—viewing just three posts—temporarily made teenagers feel more positively about vaping and increased their intentions to vape in the future!
In a second study, teenagers in California answered interview questions about the content they see on social media related to vaping and other substance use, and how such content affects them. Most participants reported seeing social media content that glamorized vaping, especially in “stories”—content that is available for a limited amount of time and can easily be hidden from parents. Participants shared their thoughts on how social media makes vaping seem like a normal part of teenagers’ daily lives. They perceived their peers as trying to appear cool and mature by posting photos and videos of themselves vaping.
So what can we do to reduce the negative effects of vaping-related social media content on teens? The good news is that social media can also be an effective tool for sharing information with teenagers about the risks of vaping.
Most participants in my study remembered seeing anti-vaping ads on social media. They described the disconnect between the messages they received from adults and the messages they received from peers on social media. Messages from adults tend to focus on the most dire consequences of substance use. When teenagers see their peers vaping, drinking, or smoking on social media, it just looks like fun! They often disregard messages from adults as being exaggerated and untrue—especially if they have already started using substances. One approach is to meet teenagers where they’re at—to acknowledge the benefits they’ve seen, while sharing accurate information about the risks as well.
So how should we talk to teenagers about social media and substance use? Here are a few suggestions to consider.
· Start a conversation with your kids about what they’re seeing on social media. What are their friends and classmates posting about? It can be easier for teenagers to open up about their peers’ activities than their own. Talking about what they’ve seen online can open the door to honest conversation about their views.
· Acknowledge their reality. After hearing prevention messages in school or online, many teenagers are left feeling like the messages don’t reflect what they’re actually seeing. Talk about the nuances of substance use. For example, moderate drinking may be okay for most adults, but is risky for teenagers. Acknowledge that not all drugs are the same. Give teenagers the information they need to make good decisions.
· Consider setting family rules or guidelines around social media use. Social media can be a wonderful way to teenagers to connect with their friends. It also carries risks. Think about rules that make sense for your family, such as limiting social media use to certain times (e.g., after homework is done) or limiting certain activities. Different guidelines work for different families, and there are no “right” answers.
How do you talk to your kids about social media use or substance use? What has worked or not worked for your family?
The research described in this piece was funded by the Tobacco-Related Disease Research Program (Award #28FT-0015).