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Those Facebook and Instagram photos of people partying their minds out are the worst. Even if you know your friends carefully chose the shots that best depict the absolute blast everyone was having, there's always that reverse-schadenfreude moment when you worry, why wasn't I doing that?
The Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) phenomenon is part of why people tend to get addicted to social networking and then depressed. And if you're a young, impressionable teenager, it could pressure you into making sure you, too, are happily intoxicated the next time someone snaps a group shot.
That's the gist of the latest study to find that social media photos of people drinking and smoking can influence teens into partaking in the same degenerate behavior. The University of Southern California study was published online today in the Journal of Adolescent Health.
The age of virtual socializing is putting a new spin on parents' timeworn warning to not fall in with the wrong crowd—except when your hundreds of online "friends" are sharing images of their nefarious after-school activities, the wrong crowd comes straight to your laptop.
The USC researchers surveyed some 1,500 tenth-graders from the El Monte Union High School District in Los Angeles County about their alcohol and cigarette consumption, their online and real-world friend networks, and how often they use social media. They found that with more exposure to friends' online pictures of drinking or smoking and alcohol use went up significantly—especially for the students whose close friends weren’t partiers.
The study focused on Facebook and MySpace, but surely the trend can be expanded out to Instagram, Twitter, or whatever social apps the kids are using these days. The findings affirm previous studies that found social media spurs an uptick in underage substance use—and certain studies found that goes for sex and drugs, too.
The rise of social media is effectively super-sizing peer pressure. While old-school pressure conjures up images of the class rebel offering you a cigarette under the bleachers, a quick scroll through your Facebook news feed is like being at 20 tempting parties at once. And while TV and movies have been making partying and sex look cool for years, social networking normalizes the behavior in your own circles. It's conformity 2.0.
About 95 percent of teens in the US access the internet every day, and 80 percent communicate through social media, namely Facebook. According to the study, about 34 percent of students had at least one friend who talked about partying online, and 20 percent had at least one friend who posted photographic proof of the illicit behavior.
That means nearly a fifth of US teens are looking at images of underage drinking and smoking, usually shown in a positive light. Put that way, I can see why the National Institutes of Health is pouring $200,000 into trying to flip the switch, and leverage social networking sites as a tool to convince kids to just say no. But they're going to have to make those group shots of Scrabble and lemonade look pretty damn enticing.