Snapchat, Instagram Linked to Alcohol Abuse Among College Students

Exposure to alcohol-related content on social media is associated with increased drinking among college students, according to several new studies from researchers at Loyola Marymount University. 

The effect stems from perceptions of drinking norms — the idea that everyone else is drinking, or drinking a lot, which in turn drives how much or how often college students really do consume alcohol, said Joe LaBrie, LMU psychology professor and lead author of the studies. 

“Social media applications like Instagram and Snapchat are great at creating perceptions of what is normal, and as humans we act based on what we believe others are doing,” LaBrie said. “The problem is that the perceptions generated by these apps are often skewed, so that behavior is based on an incomplete or exaggerated view of what is really going on around us. Instagram and Snapchat are more prone to creating risky perceptions because of their greater privacy settings and more ephemeral, disappearing content than Facebook.” 

One study found the effect is so strong among Snapchat users that simply using the app more during the transition to college is enough to make it likely that a student will be drinking more heavily than peers at the end of the school year. 

LaBrie’s research builds on existing studies showing links between social media and alcohol use by college students. But previous research focused mostly on Facebook, which has since been eclipsed by Snapchat and Instagram as the leading social media networks for younger people, LaBrie said. 

The studies also found: 

  • Exposure to alcohol-related Instagram content during the transition into college predicts more risky drinking across the first year of college in male students. 
  • First-year college students who use a “finsta” — a secondary, “fake” Instagram hidden from parents or other authority figures and shared with a small, curated group of friends — were more likely to be heavier drinkers at the end of the school year. 
  • Among male students, calculations indicate that every 30 minutes of additional daily Snapchat use during the transition into college correlates to an average of one more drink per week at the end of the school year. 

“These more specific findings — about a bigger effect among male students, about Snapchat and finsta accounts in particular — point toward possible areas of future research and potential intervention strategies for colleges to reduce problem drinking,” LaBrie said. “Although the impact of social media on first-year women is not as strong as men, there is other evidence that social media use and newsfeed exposure to others’ images may still impact drinking and other potential negative behaviors and affective states, including body image, depression, and anxiety in women.” 

The results came from research that focused on students’ first year of college, and even the months before. Researchers have found that attitudes toward drinking formed during this time have an impact on students’ habits going forward. 

The studies provide a deeper and more accurate look at the content that students were viewing and interacting with, because they used objective measure for the social media variables, rather than relying on students to self-report their behaviors and what they had seen. Students downloaded an app to monitor participants’ time on social media sites and researcher anonymously coded nearly 90,000 Instagram images from the 309 participant’s Instagram newsfeeds during the transition into college. 

The studies were funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and published in Addictive Behaviors and forthcoming issues of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs and the Journal of American College Health.