In the age of social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, peer pressure can take on a whole new meaning. Kids might be influenced by friends at school and social events — or by what they see posted online.
A recent study found this to be the case when it came to teens' decisions to engage in risky behaviors like smoking and drinking.
The study showed that teens were more likely to smoke or drink alcohol if their friends posted more images of partying and drinking online.
The effect was a little different for MySpace versus Facebook, but both sites appeared to have an influence on teens' behavior.
What did not matter to teens' decisions about risky behavior, however, was how much time a teen spent on social networking or how many online friends they had.
This study, led by Grace C. Huang, PhD, of the Institute for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention Research at the University of Southern California, looked at the influence of social networking on teens' risky behaviors.
The researchers studied the friendship network data, social media use and risky behaviors of 1,563 tenth graders from five Southern California high schools.
The researchers specifically analyzed the websites MySpace and Facebook, and the teens filled out surveys about their friends, friends' activities and their online use in two surveys given six months apart.
The researchers analyzed the extent to which online influences from friends appeared to affect teens' behaviors compared to offline peer pressure.
The researchers did not find that the number of friends on a teen's social networking account made much difference regarding whether the teens engaged in risky behavior. Neither did the amount of time teens spent on social networking sites appear to affect their engagement in risky behaviors.
However, the researchers did find evidence that social networking peer influences affected whether teens engaged in risky behaviors.
For example, teens were more likely to smoke and more likely to drink alcohol if they had more photos posted by their friends involving partying or drinking.
As would be expected from past research, teens whose friends drank alcohol were also more likely to drink themselves. However, teens whose friends did not drink much were more likely to be influenced by online photos of other peers drinking and partying.
"Exposure to risky online content had a direct impact on adolescents’ risk behaviors and significantly interacted with risk behaviors of their friends," the researchers wrote. "These results provide evidence that friends’ online behaviors should be considered a viable source of peer influence and that increased efforts should focus on educating adolescents on the negative effects of risky online displays."
MySpace appeared to have a stronger effect than Facebook, though the effect was seen on both sites.
"The significant associations between Myspace and risk behavior could have been attributed to influences from its eclectic user base, or to the fact that at-risk adolescents are naturally drawn to social networking sites that can be tailored to suit their preferences," the researchers wrote.
"Perhaps because of the expectation that Facebook was related to 'growing up' and a college audience, students may perceive risky online behaviors as less favorable," they wrote.
One positive finding was that teens who listed a higher number of close friends on the surveys were less likely to be influenced as much by online photos of risky behaviors.
This study was published September 4 in the Journal of Adolescent Health. No information was provided regarding disclosures.
The research was funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and a National Institutes of Health/National Cancer Institute Ruth L. Kirschstein NRSA award.