Most people might not consider seeing advertising on social media as being much different than how people take in traditional advertising. Nevertheless, researchers recognised that there is a difference between passively skimming social media and doing something with more deliberate concentration like watching TV. Because of this difference in how our brains are engaged with what we are seeing, a study was conducted to determine if this type of passive skimming could change the behaviour of university students when it comes to smoking.
Cigarette smoking has been in decline in the US since the 1960s. The most recent data shows that there has never been fewer teens and adults who smoke since data has been collected. Nevertheless, tobacco use leads the way as the number one cause of avoidable disease. The US spends more on treating smoking-related illness in adults each year than the federal government spends on education. Recent research has shown social media’s role in perpetuating this public health crisis.
Alarmed by the lack of research into how social media may influence young adult non-smokers, researchers, designed a study to fill the gap. Much of the information taken in while young adults are online is considered passive. The term used to describe the cognitive process of taking in social media is ‘information scanning’.
Tobacco companies routinely use various social media platforms to create and perpetuate pro-smoking culture. Whether they create cigarette and cigar smoking groups, or join existing groups and subsequently post messages in support of smoking and smoker identity, researchers found prolific instances of tobacco companies leveraging social media for amplifying their message. Once this information is out there, young people skim through it as they check out their friends’ selfies and check-ins.
The researchers wanted to recruit young people in this demographic and found 871 students at the University of Texas at Austin to participate in the study. All aged 18–25, the racial breakdown of the participants was 60.4% white, 18.5% Hispanic American, 12.7% Asian American, 4.3% African American and 0.8% Native American and other races. More than half of the participants were male, with females making up about 40% of the study.
The research followed the Integrative Model of Behavioural Prediction (IMBP) to attempt to understand the smoking behaviour of young adults who use social media. This model seeks to understand whether participants already intend to act out specific behaviours, like smoking. Furthermore, the model seeks to find out if behaviours are influenced by certain factors such as how socially acceptable the action in question is perceived to be.
After gathering information regarding the students’ perceptions about their own ability to resist smoking, their smoking history, and their beliefs about societal views around smoking, the researchers attempted to gather how often the participants scanned pro-smoking social media over the next three months. Researchers found, unsurprisingly, that the more students engaged with social media platforms, the more often they were exposed to pro-smoking information.
The researchers followed-up with participants six months later to assess their smoking behaviour. The IMBP prediction model accurately assessed that ‘those who reported frequent pro-smoking information scanning using social media were more likely to smoke at follow-up’. The model controlled for other predictors such as students’ pre-existing intentions to smoke.
The study concluded that seeing pro-smoking messages while scanning social media influences students’ memories by indicating where, when, and how smoking could be seen as socially acceptable. In addition, they believe that young adults who don’t smoke, may change their views and attitudes toward smoking as a result of exposure to pro-tobacco messages while using social media. The researchers urge policy makers to use the study’s findings to update their strategies for using social media to counter the pro-smoking information being proliferated.
Ian Felton has more than 20 years of professional experience writing software for organisations such as NASA, Mayo Clinic, Thomson Reuters, and many more.
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