Research & Insights

Research Says Anti-smoking Campaigns Should Target Social Media

New research suggests that social media images of smoking may encourage teens to light up.

Although public health communicators know that showing smoking on the silver screen can have adverse impacts on young people, little research has yet been done to determine whether this effect extends to social media, as well. To explore the topic, Jacob B. Depue, Brain G. Southwell, Anne E. Betzner, and Barbara M. Walsh designed a study involving young people and their social media accounts. The study results were published in the March/April 2015 issue of the American Journal of Health Promotion.

The study began with the researchers surveying 200 young adults (ages 18 – 24) about their own status as a smoker or non-smoker and their use of social media. Participants were asked whether they’d smoked in the past 30 days as well as “how often they had seen tobacco use on television, in movies, and in social media content (such as Facebook or MySpace).” They also responded to a variety of other questions about health behaviors and personal characteristics related to smoking.

Five months later, the researchers repeated the study, again asking the young people about their use of media and their smoking habits. They found that seeing smoking depicted on social media had a significant impact on whether or not the young people smoked. This relationship held true even when controlling for the effects of personal characteristics like sensation-seeking, long established to be a risk factor for smoking, and exposure to tobacco in mass media.

“Encoded exposure to social media depictions of tobacco use predicted later smoking,” the researchers say. The reason why may have to do with how people think about social media and their own lives.

“[T]he extent to which an individual identifies with people depicted on screen [in mass media] may amplify the likelihood of such depictions [of smoking] have an impact,” the researchers explain. “Social media content, which reflects user-generated content produced by an extended social network ostensibly connected to the viewer, may be a critical source for identification to occur.”

“Our work suggests that social media should be included as an important predictor in research that examines smoking behavior,” the researchers note. “From a health campaign perspective, our study suggests health practitioners ought to place a greater emphasis on curtailing social media’s influence on tobacco behaviors…and should counteract such influence with social media campaigns emphasizing peer influence…and the health consequences faced by online friends who smoke.”

American Journal of Health Promotion

Jacob B. Depue, Northeastern University and Professional Data Analysts
Brian G. Southwell, RTI International
Anne E. Betzner, Professional Data Analysts
Barbara M. Walsh, Connecticut Department of Public Health

Posted: August 10, 2015
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