The positive reinforcement of social networking sites can increase behaviors like binge drinking

Social-media sites – for example, Instagram, Snapchat, and Facebook – that provide clear networking functions such as liking, sharing, commenting, and personal messaging with other users or “followers” are popular among youth. They have also become a prime milieu for the socialization of young people’s alcohol use. These results and others will be shared at the 44thannual scientific meeting of the Research Society on Alcoholism (RSA), which will be held virtually this year from the 19th – 23rd of June 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Socialization occurs when a person’s attitudes or behaviors are shaped by others,” explains Tara Dumas, associate professor in the department of psychology at Huron University. “Given how much time young people spend online, and how this has increased notably since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, a lot of peer socialization is happening via social-media/networking sites; people’s attitudes and behaviors are being shaped by what they are exposed to and how their own content is responded to by others. In this study, we focus on the role of peer reinforcement in the form of positive feedback – likes and comments – on young people’s alcohol-related posts as a socialization agent of risky drinking over time.” Dumas will discuss these findings at the virtual RSA meeting on 20 June 2021.

Dumas and her colleagues asked young American and Canadian adults aged 18 to 25 years about their frequency of alcohol-related posts on Snapchat and Instagram – the two most common social-networking sites (SNSs) among young people – as well as the average amount of positive feedback on their alcohol-related posts, and amount of exposure to others’ alcohol-related posts.

“Findings suggest that peer feedback on SNSs plays an important role in predicting increases young people’s binge drinking over time, and highlight the importance of focusing prevention efforts on online peer reinforcement,” said Dumas. “Socialization on SNSs happens in a variety of differing ways; it is not simply about what we are exposed to but also how our own content is received by others.”

More specifically, positive reinforcement on SNSs appears to affect people’s actual behavior outside of social media. “Regardless the amount of alcohol-related content these young adults posted themselves or saw from others, receiving more likes and comments on their own alcohol-related content predicted increased binge drinking across three months. This is really the first study to suggest that this feedback predicts changes in young people’s risky drinking. Clearly this digital form of approval has a powerful effect on young people’s attitudes and behaviors.”

Dumas cautioned that, on social media, what an individual gives their attention to and feedback on matters as it helps to shape people’s behavior. “I hope that this information encourages users to realize that their behavior on these platforms matters,” she said “I suggest users do not give their attention to anything they do not want to promote. For example, be cautious about viewing, liking, or commenting on content that may reinforce risky behavior such as binge drinking.”

On a related note, Dumas added that while Instagram’s recent decision to remove publicly displayed likes from people’s pages in Canada may have led to teens reporting that likes became less validating when not publicly displayed, it also led to an increase in the importance of comments– essentially replacing the value of likes. “Further,” she added, “79 percent of our recent adolescent sample reported that the change was not successful in reducing pressure to gain positive reinforcement on Instagram and make their posts ‘Insta worthy.’ Thus, I have doubts that the removal of publicly displayed likes will have much of an influence on young people’s posting behavior and the overall impact of positive reinforcement on this site.”