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Daily social media use makes teens more likely to start smoking

The tobacco industry may have found a new way to target our kids, and it’s hiding in plain sight. Disguised as cool vibes and social trends, a new study reveals that social media is having a powerful influence on teen smoking initiation.

What seems like harmless digital content can have lasting, real-world consequences. A remarkable new study by Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH) sheds light on this worrying connection, demonstrating how social media use heavily influences youth habits.

Social media use and smoking

According to the study, teens who use social media every day face a 67% higher risk of starting to smoke compared to those who use these platforms less often. This demonstrates the powerful influence social media has on youth behavior.

Approximately 10% of middle and high school students – a staggering 2.8 million kids – are currently using at least one tobacco product. This shockingly high number shows how successful tobacco companies are in reaching young people.

Moreover, e-cigarettes and vaping are making the problem even worse. Many teens now use multiple tobacco products, increasing their exposure to harmful chemicals and long-term health risks.

“Our results add to a growing body of literature documenting the harms of social media use for this age group, as well as how commercial interests such as the tobacco industry are targeting kids on these platforms,” says study lead author Dr. Lynsie Ranker, assistant professor of community health sciences at BUSPH.

Tobacco industry targeting young minds

The tobacco industry has a long history of targeting youth, and social media is their latest weapon. Their tactics are carefully designed to appeal to and manipulate young minds.

Flavors like cotton candy and bubblegum in e-cigarettes are deliberately aimed at teens and young adults. These flavors mask the harshness of nicotine and make the products seem fun and harmless.

Moreover, by partnering with celebrities and popular social media influencers, they create an illusion of glamour and social acceptance around smoking and vaping. This makes these products seem desirable and trendy.

Images of happy groups using tobacco or vaping products create the false perception that “everyone’s doing it.” This taps into the natural teenage desire to feel included and can pressure teens to experiment to avoid feeling left out.

From social media scrolling to smoking

The Boston University study reveals critical details about the tactics social media uses to influence teens’ tobacco use. Surprisingly, teens who use social media every day are at the highest risk.

This underscores how repeated exposure to pro-tobacco messages and images gradually breaks down their resistance and makes smoking seem more normal.

Even seemingly small interactions, like liking or following a tobacco brand’s page, increases a teen’s risk of trying tobacco. These actions make teens more receptive to the idea of smoking, slowly changing their perception of the product.

Influencers and “social norming”

As discussed, social media often presents a highly edited and unrealistic view of the world. When teens constantly see their peers or favorite influencers seemingly enjoying tobacco products without consequences, it has a dangerous impact.

This constant exposure normalizes tobacco use. It makes smoking and vaping seem like harmless everyday activities rather than a serious health risk.

Images of others seemingly having fun while using tobacco can trigger FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) in teens. This powerful emotion can push teens to experiment with tobacco just to feel like they belong to the perceived “in” crowd.

Who is responsible?

“It is not surprising that tobacco manufacturers target youth through social media,” says study coauthor Dr. Traci Hong, professor of media science at Boston University College of Communication.

Currently, the burden of regulating tobacco promotion on social media is largely left up to the platforms themselves. This has resulted in a confusing patchwork of policies that tobacco companies are all too adept at exploiting.

“Based on our research, social media platforms lack self-regulation,” says study coauthor Dr. Jessica Fetterman, assistant professor of medicine at Boston University Chobanian & Avedisian School of Medicine. “The government must step forward to regulate tobacco marketing on social media, just as they have done for other forms of media such as TV and print ads.”

How to stop teens on social media from smoking?

We can’t place the entire burden on legislation. Here’s what parents, educators, and teens themselves can do:

Talk openly

Equipping our teens with the knowledge and tools to resist social media manipulation is crucial. Don’t wait until you suspect a problem. Begin talking to teens about the dangers of tobacco use, including cigarettes, e-cigarettes, and vaping products, well before they enter their teenage years.

Provide teens with accurate information about the addictive nature of tobacco and the serious health risks associated with its use. Highlight the long-term consequences like lung cancer, heart disease, and respiratory problems.

Practice how teens can politely decline social pressure to experiment with tobacco. Role-playing potential situations and responses can empower them to make healthy choices.

Media literacy 

Help teens understand that not everything they see on social media is real, honest, or unbiased. Teach them to be savvy consumers of online content by asking themselves these key questions:

  • Who created this content? Is it an individual, a brand, an influencer, a news organization, etc.? Understanding the source helps evaluate potential motives.
  • What is the purpose? Are they trying to sell something, promote an idea, entertain, or inform? Identifying the purpose reveals possible biases.
  • How does this make me feel? Does the content make you feel insecure, excited, happy, or afraid? Strong emotions can be a sign of manipulation.
  • Does this seem realistic? Is the content portraying situations or lifestyles that seem overly perfect or dramatic? Perfection is often a sign of staging, not reality.
  • Where else can I find information? Encourage teens to cross-check facts on reputable news sites, government health websites (.gov), or educational organizations (.org) to see if the information aligns.

Find alternative connections

While social media can offer a form of connection, it cannot replace the value of genuine, face-to-face interactions. Sports teams, clubs, and activities provide a space for teens to meet others with shared interests. This fosters deeper friendships based on real connections, common experiences, and shared goals.

Focusing on in-person activities helps combat the feelings of loneliness and isolation that can result from excessive social media use.

Face-to-face interactions are essential for developing crucial communication skills like reading body language, resolving conflict, and having meaningful conversations – skills that don’t always translate well online.

Feeling part of a team, contributing to a group project, or performing in front of an audience can all build confidence and self-worth – something that isn’t as easily achieved through social media likes and comments.

Physical activity, creative pursuits, and shared hobbies offer healthy ways to manage stress and promote overall well-being.

Developing a healthy skepticism of online content takes time and practice. Encourage teens to have these conversations with friends, teachers, and parents as they navigate social media. Let’s help our youth be smarter than the algorithms designed to manipulate them.

The study is published in Addictive Behaviors.


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