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How Social Media Can Amplify Underage Drinking

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Young people used to see ads about alcohol only in magazines and on TV — but these days the new frontier is digital — platforms like social media and video games. A team in North Texas is working on a new way to combat underage drinking — with a focus on parents.

Dana Litt, professor of Health Behavior and Health Systems at the University of North Texas Health Science Center, is one of the leaders of the team researching this new approach. She joined KERA's Justin Martin to talk about their work.

The UNT researchers are holding focus groups with parents to learn what conversations they're already having with kids about the alcohol-related content they see on social media, and parents' social media literacy skills. They're also talking with young people ages 15-20 to get their perspective.

The team will use these insights develop and test a set of online, parent-based interventions and talking points that families can use as a guide to discussing alcohol-related content on social media.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS:

How Social Media Has Changed Exposure To Alcohol

When we think about kind of more of the kind of static materials, like magazines or TV, there really wasn't a lot of interactivity, and so really what we have now is a situation where adolescents and young adults can really create, share and focus on what their peers are doing.

The way that I always think about it is that when I was young, I maybe knew what some of my friends did over the weekend. I maybe knew that one of them had a drink or two. But now with the average adolescent having over 500 Facebook friends, you're exposed to a much larger window.

So now you don't just know what your friends did, you might know what everyone in your school did. You might know what people you don't actually know in real life did. I see it as basically social media has amplified the amount of information about alcohol that our youth are exposed to.

Teaching Parents How To Communicate

My colleague, Dr. Melissa Lewis and I are working on our project that's really aimed at understanding how parents can help communicate with their teens to really lessen the impact of what their teens are seeing online.

I think it's going to be not just kind of teaching them what the different platforms are, what they mean, but also what the different code words are, what the different emojis are that they use that might stand for something else.

Things are constantly changing, but the nice thing about how we're developing this intervention is that it's not specific to any one platform, and so it really can be continued as new things pop up. 

Communication Tips For Parents 

I think there's been a lot of work out there showing that simply or restricting it is not enough. Kids are very savvy. They are very likely to find ways around your restrictions.

What I would suggest is that you do need to have conversations, but it's not the kind of conversation of why did you do this? What did you post? It's really trying to be nonjudgmental, open minded, and letting your kids open up to you.

A lot of this intervention is going to be just kind of general communication style tips, how to respond if your kid doesn't want to answer you, using 'em open-ended versus closed ended questions to get better responses.

I think that if parents can have an open mind and also really consider that kids today are dealing with things that we never had to deal with, it may be things that we don't entirely understand, but they really are the best ones to let us know what's going on and we really have to give them a safe space to explain that to us.