College students more likely to drink with peers who appear responsible on Facebook

A team of our (smart) researchers from SMAHRT descended on Washington, D.C. last weekend for the Pediatric Academic Societies annual meeting. SMAHRT = Social Media and Adolescent Health Research Team, which is based at Seattle Children’s Research Institute. This week, we’ll feature some of their new research. Megan Moreno, MD, leads the group and is a senior author on all of the research studies. Some of the researchers are based at other academic institutions, demonstrating the collaborative spirit of SMAHRT.

Study group

There are two predictions that are a near sure bet when discussing the daily lives of college students. First, Facebook is an omnipresent social tool for this age group. Nearly all students use it, and it has become an important part of how they form friendships.

Second, as you’ve read in other SMAHRT posts this week, alcohol is a big part of collegiate life, to the extent that binge drinking and other dangerous drinking behaviors are often seen as normal. Taking these two factors into account, a related phenomenon is that students often post about alcohol on Facebook.

Recently, researchers have begun to investigate exactly what this means. How do posts about alcohol on Facebook influence real-life behavior? Previous research has indicated that posting about alcohol is considered socially desirable—students look “cool” or attractive in doing so. But what happens when an incoming college student sees these posts on Facebook?

Using Facebook to gauge responsibility

Researchers from the University of Wisconsin and Seattle Children’s Research Institute conducted interviews with students entering two large universities as freshmen. We presented the students with a scenario: You are invited to a party by a senior student. Check out the senior’s Facebook profile as you decide whether or not you’ll drink at the party with this new friend.

Surprisingly, students said that they were more likely to drink at the party if the new friend appeared to be responsible, as opposed to seeing drinking references on the senior student’s Facebook profile. How did we define being “responsible”? Based on our research, this means a Facebook profile that contains pro-social references—a wall post from another person that mentions a study group or includes family pictures.

Additionally, we found consistent patterns as to what types of information matter most on Facebook. We found that students weighed posts made by other people on a person’s wall the most in their consideration of other profiles. That is, a wall post about a study group was more likely to lead to drinking than pro-social pictures or status updates, and a wall post about drinking was less likely to lead to drinking, rather than pictures or status updates of the same type. Wall posts are different than status posts, which are written by the Facebook profile owner in response to the question: What’s on your mind?

This is called the warranting effect – we respond more strongly to information provided on wall posts by an individual’s friend, because it is a lot harder to fake than being selective with your pictures or posting a somewhat deceptive status update.

While these results are unexpected, they represent a step forward in understanding how influence on Facebook works. In our future research, we will not only aim to track how these patterns of influence change over the course of a college career, but we will also consider possible drinking interventions. Combining communication research with pediatrics research provides a powerful tool, one with which we may be able to help increase safety and improve quality of life through the power of communication technology.

Jonathan D’Angelo, MA, is a PhD student in Communications at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.