Substance Use and Social Media

by | Drug and Alcohol, What We're Talking About

Parents are often concerned about social media use and the influence on drug use in children.

83% of Australians are active on social media and the average time spent is an eye watering two hours per day.

Previous research has shown that young people who spend longer periods on social media tend to be more exposed to content showing alcohol and drug use. This in turn has the potential to normalise substance use and increase the chances of young people trying substances like alcohol at an earlier age.

A recent Australian study explored social media content on substance use in detail to better understand how it might influence adolescent attitudes and behaviours.

University of Queensland researchers did a systematic review of more than 70 studies on substance use content on various social media platforms. The data included nearly 16 million social media posts, which were categorised based on the substance being used, the social media platform (including Instagram, YouTube and TikTok), and whether the post had an overall positive, negative or neutral attitude regarding substance use. 

The posts included e-cigarettes (‘vaping’), tobacco, cannabis, opiates and alcohol. Content originated from a wide range of sources including personal and commercial accounts, advertisements, influencers, as well as public health and government organisations. Regardless of the type of substance use being portrayed, over 75 per cent of the posts had a positive attitude, 20 per cent were negative and 3.5 per cent were neutral. Opiates were the only category found to have a negative portrayal in most posts.

The bottom line was that social media content that focuses on or depicts substance use is widespread and readily available online. While some is aimed at providing reliable information about the risks of substance use, much of it encourages a positive attitude towards consumption. Such content can influence young people. They are more prolific users of social media at the same time as being more vulnerable to long term harms from using alcohol and other drugs.

There are plenty of useful resources available to medical professionals and the public, including the Substance abuse, misuse and addiction information from Lifeline.