Teenagers spend lots of time on MySpace, Facebook, and other social media sites talking about what they do. Often that talk is about underage drinking, risky sexual activity, and violence. But does it describe their actual activities, or is it just bragging?
About half of teenagers' social media posts refer to drinking, sex, or violence, according to Megan Moreno, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. That discovery, which was reported earlier this year, left Moreno wondering if all that chatter was reality or trash talk. She's still working on answering that question, but she has found out this: Kids do think that what they see on social media sites is real, and the younger they are, the more they believe it. That's important, because teenagers are powerfully influenced by the behavior of their peers.
"There is good data that if kids think their friends are drinking, they're more likely to drink," Moreno says. "The perception of normal is powerful." Teenagers' behavior also is influenced by seeing behavior on television and hearing about it on the radio and in music. Social media combines those two influences. "Say it's the most popular kid in your school, and they're [pictured] drinking. You might drink to be more like that kid," she says.
Moreno asked 32 teenagers between the ages of 11 and 18 whether they thought the alcohol use they saw pictured or mentioned on social media sites was real. (This work is published in the October Journal of Adolescent Health.) The younger the child, the more likely they were to think it was legit. Personal photographs were considered particularly convincing "evidence."
Moreno doesn't yet have hard data on how much of the teenage drinking on social media sites is real. She thinks some of it is, some is nonsense, and some is a "gesture of intention"—that is, a teen may be thinking of getting into the drinking scene and is testing the waters by putting up pictures or writing about it. That, she says, is good news for parents who want to know what's up with the kid. It's also a great time to step in.
Other recent surveys have found that most parents are clueless about what their children are posting and reading on social media sites. Moreno sees her own research not as reason to despair but as impetus to get involved. "This provides an opportunity for parents to look at these types of websites with their kids," Moreno says. "Ask them what they think. Do you think it is real? What do you think about drinking? It's a way to have an educational experience."