New research has found that social media could be sending out positive messaging about alcohol use – and that increased use of social media by just one hour a day resulted in an a 0.45 unit upsurge in the frequency of alcohol consumption among teenage students in the 7th to 11th grades.
The study, “A longitudinal study on the relationship between screen time and adolescent alcohol use: The mediating role of social norms,” will be published in the March 2020 issue of Preventive Medicine. It called into question the longstanding belief that increased screen time – including TV, video gaming and social media – actually resulted in teens abstaining from alcohol. In other words the more that young people spent engaging with their devices or otherwise looking at a screen decreased the likelihood of them drinking.
However, this new research calls into question what type of screens young people are viewing, and when it comes to social media the way alcohol is presented could be encouraging them to drink.
There are restrictions on how alcohol is advertised on TV, but it remains true that teens who watch content more geared towards adults are in fact exposed to positive depictions of drinking, notably ads. Social media isn’t largely bound by the same rules as print or broadcast media, and many of the ad campaigns that appear on the various platforms can be readily seen by those of all ages.
Currently only TikTok bans alcohol ads entirely, while Twitter, SnapChat, and YouTube prohibit alcohol ads that are directed at minors or ads that imply that drinking is somehow healthy, yet many of the campaigns still are made to seem funny, adventurous or clever.
As The Wall Street Journal noted this week, “While regulators from New York City to Ireland to Ethiopia have cracked down on outdoor and broadcast ads for beer, wine and spirits in the past year, only a handful have targeted online ads. That is despite studies showing online alcohol marketing is often seen by people below the legal drinking age, and those exposed are more likely to start drinking or to drink heavily.”
Facebook’s alcohol policy only indicates that ads should not be targeted to those younger than 18 years of age – despite that fact that one must be 21 years of age anywhere in the United States to purchase alcohol – and should follow local laws as well as industry codes and guidelines.
“The moment has come for social networks like Facebook and Instagram to exercise more control over the content they post,” said Elroy Boers, PhD, lead study author, via a statement as posted on ProCon.org. “They have to show more responsibility when it comes to content aimed at young people – in this case when it comes to consuming alcohol.”
Is Social Media Really to Blame?
The question is whether social media does in fact need to be more aggressive in what it allows from advertisers, and whether these platforms are actually encouraging teens to drink.
“There are two issues here,” explained Greg Sterling, vice president of marketing insights at Uberall.
“The first is the degree to which underage drinking can be pinned on social media,” said Sterling. “There’s some academic research that argues there is a connection. We probably need further confirmation of this. But if that data is accurate there should be curbs. And there probably should be controls around advertising generally – see, for example, Facebook’s unwillingness to police fraudulent content in political ads.”
A larger question is to what extent digital media should be regulated by the same rules as traditional media.
“Legal immunity for content provided under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act should probably be amended or modified to place additional burdens of responsibility on social networks though perhaps not to quite the same degree as traditional media publishers,” added Sterling. “This is a very tricky issue because of the nature of digital content publishing and user-generated content. Scale is a challenge with major internet sites. We also don’t want to have platforms censoring content to avoid perceived potential liability. However, the total immunity now enjoyed by internet publishers is probably no longer in the best interests of the society.”