Heavier social media use: are there links with binge-drinking in young people?
From Bebo to Facebook and Snapchat to TikTok, the last decade or so has seen a proliferation of social media platforms being used especially by young people. Earlyresearch featured on our blog has investigated some of the potential pitfalls that might be associated with this relatively new phenomenon especially around how long hours spent on social media might be linked with poorer mental health and depression especially among girls. Now a team of UCL researchers led by Linda Ng Fat have been looking at the relationship between social media usage and alcohol consumption. Here she explains how, against a backdrop of lower alcohol consumption among young people, and in the first study of its kind in the UK, she and colleagues have found a reasonably strong correlation between the two.
Across the globe, young people are drinking less than they used to. In fact, earlier research provides strong evidence of an increase in non-drinking. Given what we know about the risks of excessive drinking and the considerable policy interest in the public health harms associated with excessive drinking, this is a really important area for research.
One possible explanation for these changes could be the opening up of new ways of socialising online, something that’s clearly been a big feature of all our lives during the COVID-19 pandemic, but which even before that was becoming something of a new phenomenon.
Pre-COVID-19, The Royal Society for Public Health’s #Status of Mind report evidenced a rise in people using social media platforms in the United Kingdom, from approximately a third of people in 2006 to approximately four-fifths a decade later in 2016, with usage highest among the youngest 16–24-year-old age group This led us to consider whether social media platforms may be providing a virtual space where young people socialise, potentially replacing physical spaces such as bars and nightclubs. Interestingly a marketing report from Mintel showed that admissions to nightclubs in the UK fell by 23 per cent from 149 million in 2010 to 115 million in 2015.
Social media use and drinking
We made use of information collected from participants in the household survey, Understanding Society. We looked at 6,782 participants, who had filled in a questionnaire about their social media usage and drinking between 2011 and 2013 and then followed up 3,645 of them in 2014 to 2016. We broke them down into two age-groups: 10-15 and 16-19.
The young people in the survey were asked how many hours they spent chatting or interacting with friends through social media platforms on a normal weekday, with categories comprising ‘no profile’, ‘non-daily use’, ‘less than an hour use per day’, ‘one to three hours’ use per day’, and ‘four hours’ or more use per day’.
Drinking frequency was categorised as ‘never’, ‘one to two times in the past month’ and ‘three or more times in the past month’. Binge drinking frequency was based on how many times participants aged 16–19-year-olds had drunk five or more drinks on a single occasion in the past month.
After taking into account a range of factors such as sex, number of close friends, life satisfaction, rural or urban location and household income, we found an increasing risk of drinking with greater social media use. Among 10-15-year-olds, those with no social media profile and non-daily users had around half the odds of those who used social media for less than an hour a day of drinking at least monthly, whereas those with one to three hours’ use, and four or more hours use were more likely, with the latter having double the odds.
Compared to those who limited their social media use to less than an hour a day, those who used social media for four hours or more per day were more likely to drink once a month or more (42 per cent vs 19 per cent). They were also more likely to be female (64 per cent vs 36 per cent) and to be dissatisfied with their lives (13per cent vs 3 per cent).
Looking at comparisons over time, we saw that among those aged 10–15 years, 43 per cent of them drank more often over the study period, with those who increased their social media use also more likely to drink more frequently compared with those whose social media usage stayed the same over the period.
Among 16–19-year-olds heavy social media use (4+ hours per day) were more likely to binge drink, and these users were more likely to have increased their binge drinking frequency over time.
Across age-groups, those with no social media use were less likely to drink and less likely to have increased their drink frequency over time.
No clear evidence was found that social media use is related to greater non-drinking. In fact the research shines something of a spotlight on the potential harms arising from social media use and drinking among young people, something, on the day our study was published, the House of Lords was quick to pick up on as it debated the Commission on Alcohol Harm 2020 report which calls for a science-led alcohol strategy.
These links are very tricky to unpick and it’s not possible to say for example that more time on social media causes young people to drink more. Given the recent rise in the number of social media platforms such as Snapchat, Instagram and TikTok – which weren’t included in this study – it’s vital that greater attention is paid to this issue so we can better understand the intricacies of this relationship.
It’s important to remember that experimentation with drinking during adolescence is all part and parcel of growing up. However, the pattern between time spent online and drinking among 10–15-year-olds in our study is particularly striking, given that the purchase of alcohol for this group is illegal, coupled with the potential problems associated with the introduction to alcohol from an earlier age.
The reasons why time spent online could link to drinking behaviours are not clear but could include having negative experiences in online spaces, as well as to exposure to alcohol-related content, including alcohol advertising. Heavier social media users were also found to be the most dissatisfied with their lives in this study, which could be related to drinking. Further research is key to understanding how time spent on social media platforms could be influencing the drinking habits of young people – either directly through alcohol advertising or indirectly through the normalisation of drinking and being drunk.
We need to draw attention to some of the limitations of our research too: social media use was measured only in regard to chatting and interacting on a weekday, with passive use excluded, whilst alcohol consumption measures did not take volume into account.
Associations between social media usage and alcohol use among youths and young adults: findings from Understanding Society is research by Linda Ng Fat, Yvonne Kelly and Noriko Cable and is published in Addiction.