Psychologists Investigate Link between Social Media and Alcohol Consumption


Social media has, since its initial conception, quickly and successfully cemented itself a position in modern culture, fundamentally changing many aspects of our daily lives for better or for worse, depending on who you ask. Drinking is also long established in British culture in particular, and psychologists are now beginning to wonder if there may be a link between the two.

Leading the charge in this regard is University of Houston psychologist Mai-Ly Steers, who is hoping to make use of a $251,010 grant from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism to study in-depth any apparent correlation between the alcohol consumption of students in the US and their social media posts. The research is already underway, with funding expected to continue over the next five years.

Steers was inspired to embark upon the research project by Clayton Neighbors, director of the social psychology program at the University of Houston and a keen researcher of alcohol and drinking norms. Working alongside Neighbors and additional researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Palo Alto University, the aim of Steers’ research is two-fold; to measure how often students post about alcohol on social media, and understand what the average college student thinks about when they see these posts.

This data will then by analysed alongside feedback from the students themselves regarding their drinking habits, as well as what students consider to be the average amount of consumption and the norms related to how often people post alcohol-related content to social media. The hope is that when combined, these datasets will help to illuminate any truth to the supposed correlation between social media and alcohol consumption.

Steers herself is firmly under the impression that such a correlation does exist, stating that, “The research has found that heavy-drinking students typically overestimate how much others drink relative to what they drink. That is, they think they drink at or a little below the norm.

“There is a large body of literature which supports that the more a student posts about alcohol-related posts, the more likely they are to drink more and the more likely they are to experience alcohol-related problems.”

So what is the driving force behind this supposed uptick in alcohol consumption? According to Steers, it all boils down to peer-pressure. Steers believes that positive feedback to drinking-related posts may encourage the continuation of such behaviours as it is established in students’ minds as the norm, and it would appear that she is not alone in this school of thought.

“I think social media has a major effect on alcohol consumption,” said exploratory studies freshman Daniella Acosta. “As college students on social media, we tend to see a lot of drinking and partying on Instagram, Snapchat, et cetera, so I think this influences us a lot more to drink.”

Also backing Steers’ argument is biochemistry senior Akash Ramesh, who asserted, “I think there is some sort of correlation, because by psychology, there’s always the feeling of peer pressure. Although in the case of social media it’s not direct, it is a passive way of promoting it since there are a lot of underage kids drinking. It makes people feel that if they’re doing it, then it’s probably OK for me to do it.”

This echo-chamber effect is only exaggerated further by the confines of many social media platforms, in which individuals connect directly with groups of like-minded people who only serve to reinforce these potentially-damaging ideas.

However some, such as creative writing junior Gabriela Torres, have expressed doubts over the validity of Steers’ claim that social media heightens alcohol consumption among students.

Ms Torres said of the research, “I personally am an underage drinker, but my drinking has nothing to do with what I see on the Internet, not inherently. It’s just a fact that my peers drink and post about it. They just happen to occur at the same time. It’s like if there is drinking, there are posts of them drinking.”

Others argue that rather than encouraging college students to drink, social media may in fact dissuade many from engaging in heavy drinking lest they end up at the centre of online embarrassment or shaming (let’s face it; none of us are at our finest when drunk). We reported on this phenomenon a couple years back following the publication of a survey conducted in conjunction with the Enjoy Heineken Responsibly Campaign, which revealed that of 5,000 people surveyed, 1 in 3 cited the prospect of social shaming via online platforms as a primary motivator to drink a little less.

So, what are your thoughts on the relationship between social media and alcohol consumption, and how do the assertions of the researchers compare to your own experiences? Let us know in the comments below.

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