Study links high social media use to increased smoking and vaping among youth

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In a recent study published in Thorax, researchers investigated associations between the use of social media platforms and cigarette smoking and vaping risk among young individuals.

Study: Association of time spent on social media with youth cigarette smoking and e-cigarette use in the UK: a national longitudinal study. Image Credit: Master_foto/Shutterstock.comStudy: Association of time spent on social media with youth cigarette smoking and e-cigarette use in the UK: a national longitudinal study. Image Credit: Master_foto/Shutterstock.com

Background

Social media use among young individuals is associated with health problems such as smoking and vaping. The tobacco industry is driving this trend with targeted marketing and paid influencers.

Social media has been linked to reward-seeking addictive behavior and may promote transgressive behaviors like smoking and vaping. Understanding the processes behind these behaviors is critical for creating harm-prevention interventions.

While researchers have investigated social media usage and its correlations with smoking and electronic cigarette usage in the United States, there is limited research on the subject in the United Kingdom.

A cross-sectional study showed social media usage among 14-year-olds was related to an increased risk of smoking cigarettes at 17 years, but it did not assess e-cigarette use.

About the study

In the present nationwide longitudinal study, researchers examined youth's daily social media usage between 2015 and 2021, investigating whether social media use could increase vaping and smoking among young individuals.

The researchers included participants from the 2015–2021 United Kingdom Household Longitudinal Study (UKHLS) aged between 10 and 25 years.

They investigated the relationship between social media usage on weekdays and current smoking and vaping using logistic regressions and generalized estimating equations (GEE).

They determined the adjusted odds ratios (OR), controlling for study covariates including age, ethnicity, sex, income, residence type, and cigarette/e-cigarette use by household members.

The team obtained study data through in-person face-to-face interviews and web-based questionnaires.

They classified participants as current cigarette smokers if they smoked one to six or more than six cigarettes weekly and current e-cigarette users as those using e-cigarettes at least once a week. 

They determined urban or rural residence using the Office for National Statistics Rural and Urban Classification of Output Areas and income based on the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) scale.

The researchers performed sensitivity analyses using the Index of Multiple Deprivation (IMD) to represent socioeconomic status, categorizing current e-cigarette use as individuals using e-cigarettes at least monthly and performing fixed effects analyses.

They also included mental health as a confounding variable, assessed using the 12-item General Health Questionnaire (GHQ-12).

Results

The study included 10,808 individuals providing 27,962 records, among whom 8.60% and 2.50% were current cigarette and e-cigarette users, respectively, and 1.10% were dual users.

Males were less likely than females to be in higher social media usage groups, and social media use increased with age. Parental smoking was more common among those who used social media the most, as was parental vaping.

GEE models adjusted for potential confounders showed frequent social media usage associated with higher odds of cigarette smoking in current times, especially for those with high social media use (AORs, 3.6 to 5.0 for ≥7.0 hours/day versus none).

The researchers observed similar relationships for electronic cigarettes (AORs, 2.7 to 5.3 for ≥7.0 hours of daily social media usage versus none). The associations were dose-dependent.

Stratifying analyses by gender and income showed similar relationships for cigarette smoking; however, for electronic cigarette use, the relationships were concentrated in men (AOR, 4.1) with higher incomes (AOR 7.9).

Models for electronic cigarette use were only significant among those aged below 18 years. Sensitivity analyses yielded similar results. Analyses controlling for GHQ-12 scores were comparable for cigarettes.

However, there were no statistically significant associations between the use of social media and electronic cigarettes or dual-use, indicating that social media use affects mental health, which in turn influences the likelihood of using cigarettes or e-cigarettes.

Conclusions

The study findings showed that frequent social media usage is associated with an increased risk of consuming cigarettes and e-cigarettes. Individuals who spent at least 7.0 hours per day browsing social media had a 2.5-fold higher likelihood of utilizing these items than those who did not.

The findings stood up to sensitivity analysis, with more consistent connections for e-cigarette usage among those under the legal age of purchase, men, and those with greater family incomes.

Further research and potential governmental solutions are required to address the issue of social media's direct and indirect marketing of these items.

Legislation and enforcement should be considered critical components of internet safety and youth protection. Future research should examine specific social media platforms and the impact of social media on mental health.

Journal reference:
  • Hopkinson NS, Vrinten C., Parnham JC, et al. (2024) Association of time spent on social media with youth cigarette smoking and e-cigarette use in the UK: a national longitudinal study. Thorax. doi: 10.1136/thorax-2023-220569.

Pooja Toshniwal Paharia

Written by

Pooja Toshniwal Paharia

Pooja Toshniwal Paharia is an oral and maxillofacial physician and radiologist based in Pune, India. Her academic background is in Oral Medicine and Radiology. She has extensive experience in research and evidence-based clinical-radiological diagnosis and management of oral lesions and conditions and associated maxillofacial disorders.

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