A major analysis of drug and alcohol use content is depicted positively on social media, encouraging substance abuse among teens and putting them at risk of developing drug and alcohol issues.
The University of Queensland study, which analysed 16 million posts across Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Pinterest, TikTok and Weibo, examined how drug and alcohol use content was portrayed across social media.
University of Queensland PhD student Brienna Rutherford from UQ’s National Centre for Youth Substance Use Research led the study. She says this positive depiction is concerning because adolescents and young adults are the most vulnerable and heaviest users of social media globally, spending an average of eight hours a day online.
“There’s evidence to show teens who are exposed to high levels of substance use are more likely to use and develop issues with alcohol, tobacco and cannabis,” Rutherford said.
“In fact, alcohol and drug use is the main contributor to disease in adolescents and young adults.”
Rutherford said better restrictions are needed on social media platforms to ensure underage users are not engaging with or exposed to potentially harmful content.
‘Public health education agencies need to do more’
Only around 21% of posts sampled were found to be from public health and educational organisations sharing information on the harmful effects of substance use.
“Social media is an incredibly powerful tool for change and, if harnessed correctly, could be a massive asset for public health messaging,” Rutherford said.
“Social media is a huge opportunity for public health organisations to educate teens on the risks associated with substance use.”
Currently, there are age restrictions on graphic content involving sexual themes or high-risk behaviours, but substance use is relatively unregulated online.
While many platforms have taken a blanket approach to banning or restricting associated hashtags, they can be easily found by publicly available internet search engines.