On July 24, 2019, Facebook activated enforcement of a new policy that will prohibit influencers and companies from advertising alcohol and nicotine products to teens. Under the new guidelines, age restrictions will limit the visibility of posts that promote these products.

The implications of this decision are far-reaching as one considers that Facebook is also the parent company of Instagram, which remains widely popular among teenagers and young adults. The new policy also extends to Instagram posts. Across both platforms, restrictions for content will extend to:

  • Private sales
  • Transfers or gifts of alcoholic products
  • Transfers or gifts of tobacco products

These limitations were already in place for Facebook Marketplace, which is the social media giant’s commerce platform. This new limitation now applies to organic content, which means that private users will have to comply with this regulation.

The ways that teenagers use social media represent a profound moral and practical challenge for policymakers. According to the Pew Research Center, 95% of teens have or have access to a smartphone and 45% admit to being online almost all of the time. Pew Research’s surveys in 2018 indicate the following social media trends for teenagers between the ages of 13 and 17:

  • 85% use YouTube
  • 72% use Instagram
  • 69% use Snapchat
  • 51% use Facebook
  • 32% use Twitter

One major trend in social media is the rise of influencers. Influencers are essentially celebrities who provide information, usually in the form of videos, that attract large audiences. Unlike previous generations, where a set of gatekeepers like record labels and movie studios dictated who emerged as a celebrity, one can quickly “go viral” today with little more than an iPhone and an eye for what constitutes popular content. These influencers are now sought out and reimbursed by companies to promote their products to their sizable followings. As many as 72% of major brands use influencers to market their products on social media platforms. Most frequently, the vast majority of followers are under 18.When influencers promote products teens should not use, such as alcohol or tobacco, the implications can obviously be problematic. This is a primary reason Facebook has decided to take action.

A Look at the Unique Role Social Media Plays in Teen Exposure to Dangerous Substances

There are a number of pros and cons to how teens engage with social media. Sites like Facebook and Instagram allow teens to stay connected in the digital age and find peers with common interests.

Through the internet, teens have access to a large body of information and ideas, but not all of them are based in research or reality. Harm can occur when impressionable teens buy into the ideas or lifestyles they see portrayed by influencers on social media. When alcohol or nicotine brands find ways to appeal to this demographic, they can create loyal customers. Because teenagers may see less of the risks associated with risky behavior, they are prime customer targets to influence through online media.

The ongoing tension between free speech and protecting teens persists for online platforms like Facebook and Instagram. Because of the novelty of these industries and consumer interactions, guidelines have largely not been set in place, leaving many industry observers to refer to the status quo as a sort of digital “Wild West.” As the industry advances, more research should be done on how teens are acting on the messages they receive online and what responsibility advertisers bear for their actions.

Impact of Social Media on Teen Vaping

Teen vaping and teen drug use are one significant problem that has only been exacerbated by access to social media. Officially classified as an epidemic, e-cigarettes have attracted widespread teen interest as a novel way to consume nicotine, seemingly without the same adverse health risks – or so they would be led to think. This widespread fetishizing of vaping can ultimately lead to long-term addiction.

Teens and social media need to remain firmly at the core of any discussions about marketing e-cigarettes and vape pens. Adolescents’ admission about extended, daily time spent on these platforms can be leveraged by companies to appeal to a captive audience. Influencers and other prominent figures with influential followings on social media must comply with these new regulations and also take stock of the moral consequences of promoting dangerous substances to young people.

Teaching Teens Safe Social Media Use

The challenges of regulating the behavior of teenagers on social media can feel overwhelming. Without violating their privacy, parents and adults should institute reasonable guidelines for oversight. Some areas to consider:

  • Moderation is key. Everyone knows that extensive time can be spent on these platforms, sometimes to the detriment of school work and socializing in the real world. Social media addiction is a real affliction that may require treatment. Studies have shown that excessive social media usage during adolescence may also lead to alcohol abuse or drug addiction.
  • Social media is simply not a replacement for personal interactions. Teenagers should be encouraged to participate in real-world social experiences as one means of preventing the risk of depression.
  • Promoting kindness. Online bullying is common and often focused on a teenager’s social media communication, body image or self-esteem. Talking to teenagers about how their words can impact others is a preventative step to help keep these troubling behaviors from continuing.
  • Avoid being someone you are not. Teenagers may look at influencers or other people online and aspire to be like them. The anonymity of the internet can lead them to develop alternate personas. This can lead to problems with identity and a weak sense of self.

Parents can provide a safe and authentic environment where teens feel safe to simply be themselves. Even when they resist, inviting teens to communicate in a judgment-free home can keep an open door in the relationship. Maintaining a healthy relationship may mean that a teen turns to their caregivers or parents in times of need, rather than an online community.

Social Media Will Never Replace Parenting

While the leaders of popular social media outlets are making strides to protect teens from harmful messages, whether a teenager experiments with e-cigarettes or alcohol is not entirely dependent on what they see and hear on social media. There is still a key role to be played by individuals taking self-responsibility and communicating openly with their loved ones. Parental relationships are still a primary source of influence into adolescence. Having candid conversations with your teenage sons and daughters, even when they don’t want you to, is a powerful tool in preventing addiction.