Social media use linked to increased risk of smoking and vaping in teens

Published: 4 April 2024

Time spent on social media was associated with an increased risk of cigarette and e-cigarette use in teenagers, according to new research.

The study, led by researchers at the MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit, found that teens who were on social media for more than two hours a day, were more than two and half times more likely to smoke cigarettes and more than three times more likely to use e-cigarettes, when compared to those who used social media for 1 to less than 30 minutes a day.

Published in the journal Nicotine & Tobacco Research, the researchers studied the online habits of around 9,000 teenagers across the UK to better understand how time spent on social media at age 14 years might influence their nicotine use a few years later at age 17 years. The study found that overall, time spent on social media at age 14 was associated with an increased risk of using both cigarettes and e-cigarettes at age 17, as well as an increased risk of dual use of both nicotine products. Further, findings suggested that the potential negative effects of social media use on teenagers cigarette use were greater among more advantaged teens compared to those more disadvantaged.

Overall, of 8,987 teenagers surveyed 28.9% of participants reported they were cigarette users, while 23.7% reported that they were e-cigarette users. In addition, 8.2% of the teens in the survey reported that they were dual users of both cigarettes and e-cigarettes.

Nicotine use generally starts in adolescence, with teens living in areas of deprivation more likely to start smoking and experience greater health inequalities as a result. While e-cigarettes have provided a less harmful alternative to cigarettes for many adult smokers, their increased promotion and resultant use among teens and young people has led to concern that these products are creating a new generation of nicotine-dependant individuals.

There is also growing concern that time spent on social media may influence teenagers’ attitudes towards e-cigarette use, and increase their uptake. Viewing posts from peers showing images and videos of themselves using e-cigarettes, as well as social media marketing by e-cigarette companies, may all contribute to young people’s likelihood of using these nicotine devices.

Lead author of the study, Amrit Kaur Purba, said: “Our findings advocate for the regulation of risky content on social media and tailored guidance for teens on social media use so they can navigate the complex social media environment. Educators, health professionals, and care givers must enhance their social media literacy to prepare teens for the realities of the social media landscape. We need to model healthy online habits, instead of resorting to blanket bans and over-protection, to help young people navigate the digital world.”

Anna Pearce, Wellcome Trust Senior Research Fellow, said: “Our analysis of a large and nationally representative survey and time use diaries indicates that teenagers who spend more than 2 hours a day on social media are around three times as likely to smoke cigarettes or e-cigarettes, after accounting for wide range of other important characteristics such as mental health, socio-economic position and past smoking behaviours.”

The study, 'The relationship between time spent on social media and adolescent cigarette, e-cigarette and dual use: a longitudinal analysis of the UK millennium cohort study’ is published in Nicotine & Tobacco Research.

First published: 4 April 2024

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