Facebook Can Promote Drinking, but May Also Be Used to Reduce It
Some 244 university students were surveyed about their own drinking habits and about how much they believed their peers drank. Of these students, 95 met the criteria that the researchers established for hazardous drinking. When asked how much they believed that their peers drank per week, these 95 students claimed that other students drank around six alcoholic beverages every week.
Users Who Received Messages Drank Less After Intervention
As a result of their responses, the 95 students who were hazardous drinkers were sent messages via Facebook informing them that most students who drink consume around six alcoholic beverages per month rather than per week.
When the researchers revisited these students after one month, they found that the students were drinking less frequently and in smaller quantities than before the Facebook message intervention. Furthermore, reduced drinking levels were still being maintained when researchers followed up after a three-month period. Beliefs about peer drinking were also much closer to reality following the Facebook intervention.
During a previous study, researchers Andrew Campbell, PhD, and Brad Ridout found that many students find it socially desirable to portray themselves as regular drinkers on Facebook. As a result, Facebook tends to present an unrealistic picture of how much drinking is normal among an individual’s friends and acquaintances, and may help to normalize and encourage binge drinking.
Having concluded that Facebook may contribute to hazardous drinking among teens and young adults, Campbell and Ridout set out to discover whether the social media site could also be an effective tool for “social norms interventions.”
Social Norms Theory Targets Misconceptions About Peer Behavior
The Social Norms Theory, first used in 1986, holds that addressing perceived norms about things like alcohol use can be more effective at changing behavior than targeting individual behavior directly. The theory was first used as a tool to fight underage drinking and has also been used to prevent smoking, drunk driving and sexual assault, and to promote seatbelt use.
The basis of the theory is simple—most people want to be seen as “normal” and will act in ways that they believe are consist with the ways in which their peers behave. Misconceptions about the way our peers behave can influence our behavior just as much as the reality, which can result in risky behavior that people believe to be typical when it is actually extraordinary. Furthermore, Social Norms Theory maintains that correcting misconceptions, e.g., helping college students to realize that their fellow students don’t regularly binge drink, will reduce dangerous activity as people naturally adjust to a new understanding of normal behavior.
The authors of this study believe that Facebook could be an exceptionally effective tool for delivering social norms messages because of the vast number of users, particularly young people, who engage with the site on a daily or weekly basis.