Cigarette smoking has been in decline in the United States since the 1960’s. The most recent data shows that there has never been fewer teens and adults who smoke since data has been collected. Nevertheless, tobacco use leads the way as the number one cause of avoidable disease in the United States. The U.S. spends more on treating smoking-related illness in adults each year than the federal government spends on education. Recent research has shown social media’s role in perpetuating this public health crisis.
After being alarmed at the lack of research into how social media may influence young adult non-smokers, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin, designed a study to do just that. The researchers recognized that social media images are absorbed and digested differently than messages in traditional media. Much of the information taken in while young adults are online is considered passive. Those using social media often aren’t deliberately seeking specific information in a concentrated manner. The term used to describe this cognitive process of taking in social media is “information scanning.”
The researchers found that tobacco companies routinely use various social media platforms to create and perpetuate pro-smoking culture. Whether they create cigarette and cigar smoking groups, or join existing groups and subsequently post messages in support of smoking and smoker identity, researchers found prolific instances of tobacco companies leveraging social media for amplifying their message.
871 students at the university from 18-25 years of age participated in the study. The racial breakdown of the participants was 60.4% white, 18.5% Hispanic American, 12.7% Asian American, 4.3% African American and 0.8% Native American and other races. More than half of the participants were male, with females making up about 40% of the study.
The research followed the Integrative Model of Behavioral Prediction (IMBP) to attempt to understand the smoking behavior of young adults who use social media. This model seeks to understand the intentions of those under study to act out specific behaviors. Furthermore, the model posits that people’s intentions regarding behaviors are influenced by several factors including how socially acceptable the behavior in question is perceived to be by peers and others.
After gathering information regarding the students’ perceptions about their own ability to resist smoking, their smoking history, and their beliefs about societal views around smoking, the researchers attempted to gather how often the participants scanned pro-smoking social media over the next three months. Researchers found, unsurprisingly, that the more students engaged with social media platforms, the more often they were exposed to pro-smoking information. The researchers followed-up with participants six months later to assess their smoking behavior. The IMBP prediction model accurately assessed that “those who reported frequent pro-smoking information scanning using social media were more likely to smoke at follow-up.” The model controlled for other predictors such as students’ pre-existing intentions to smoke.
The researchers concluded that seeing pro-smoking messages while scanning social media influences students’ memories by indicating where, when, and how smoking could be seen as socially acceptable. In addition, they believe that young adults who don’t smoke, may change their views and attitudes toward smoking as a result of exposure to pro-tobacco messages while using social media. The researchers urge policy makers to use the study’s findings to update their strategies for using social media to counter the pro-smoking media being proliferated.
Zhu, Y. (2017). Pro-smoking information scanning using social media predicts young adults’ smoking behavior. Computers In Human Behavior, 7719-24. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2017.08.004