New Study Examines Social Media Use and Risky Behavior Among Young Adults

A new study identifies distinct classes of social media use among young adults and finds that certain patterns are associated with risky behaviors, such as drug or alcohol use. This information could help public health groups effectively target interventions to social media sites that are most likely to be associated with each risky health behavior.

Vinu Ilakkuvan, DrPH, an alumna of Milken Institute School of Public Health (Milken Institute SPH) at the George Washington University (GW) and lecturer in the MPH@GW program, authored the paper, titled “Patterns of Social Media Use and their Relationship to Health Risks Among Young Adults.” She and her colleagues examined a dataset from the Truth Initiative Youth Adult Cohort Study, a national survey that asked young adults about their social media use as well as risky health behaviors like alcohol, tobacco and drug use. Using the dataset, they classified young adults ages 18 to 24 into five groups based on a combination of what social media sites – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Vine, Pinterest, Tumblr, Google+, LinkedIn and YouTube – they used and how frequently, and compared health risks across the classes.

The classes that emerged were high users, who used all sites frequently; low users, who used sites rarely; professional users, who frequently used LinkedIn; creative users, who frequently used Tumblr and Vine; and mainstream users, who frequently used Facebook and YouTube. Study authors found creative users were more likely to use alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs across the board; mainstream users were more likely to use substances used socially (alcohol and hookah); professional users were more likely to use alcohol, cigarettes, and cigars; and low users were more likely to use hard drugs, like heroin or cocaine.

“Based on our study, we can’t be certain why these differences exist,” Ilakkuvan said. “It’s possible that young adults see more images or more supportive comments related to certain substances on certain social media sites, but we need more research to understand if that’s true, and if so, why that might be the case.”

Regardless of why they exist, these differences suggest that a more complete understanding of social media patterns may help public health professionals select particular social media sites through which to disseminate preventive health messages.

“We know that youth use numerous platforms simultaneously, so by understanding where they are in the social media space and what risk behaviors they are engaging in, we can aim to target public health campaigns more effectively,” Ilakkuvan said.

The paper, “Patterns of Social Media Use and their Relationship to Health Risks Among Young Adults,” appeared online Sept. 27 in the Journal of Adolescent Health.