Health & Science

Study finds social media increases tobacco use in kids. Here’s how to help them recognize those marketing tricks

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New research hints that social media could be a significant factor in whether teens choose to start using tobacco products.

In a large study of mostly adolescents published in JAMA Pediatrics, people who were exposed to tobacco-related content on social media were found to be more than two times as likely to use tobacco as those who did not view tobacco-related content.

“Of particular importance is the fact that people who had never before used tobacco were more susceptible,” wrote study co-author Jon-Patrick Allem, Ph.D., of the Keck School of Medicine, University of Southern California, Los Angeles. “This suggests that exposure to tobacco-related content can pique interest and potentially lead nonusers to transition to tobacco use.”

This influential tobacco content included both advertisements and friends’ posts found on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest, Tumblr, Instagram and Snapchat. TikTok was not included in the study, but the researchers do plan to investigate tobacco content on the popular social media app along with other newer platforms.

Dr. Allem warned, “The proliferation of social media has offered tobacco companies new ways to promote their products, especially to teens and young adults.”

So what can families do to curb the influence of social media and advertising on future tobacco use?

Be aware of the tobacco and nicotine industry’s strategies

Tobacco and nicotine companies are constantly looking for new ways to attract customers in order to keep making money, even though they are well aware of the negative health impacts of their products. A large part of that corporate marketing effort over the decades has been to target youth and young adults.

There are plenty of laws and regulations designed to prevent tobacco companies from marketing to youth and to non-smokers in general — but these companies have found many effective tricks for getting around those rules to influence minors.

Here are some common tobacco industry tactics that parents, kids and teens need to be aware of:

  • Paying or giving free samples to celebrities and social media influencers (which could be anyone with a large number of followers). This tactic helps companies promote tobacco and nicotine products in subtle ways that come across as more “authentic” than regular ads and sponsorships. The industry has been using influencers for decades, but social media makes this approach even easier.
  • Placing ads in apps and video games that are popular with kids and teens. On social media apps, ad content looks almost identical to regular content and allows you to interact by liking, commenting, seeing friends’ activity, and clicking on hashtags. Advertisers can then access data about the app’s users so they can learn even more effective ways to target young people.
  • Offering scholarships to high school and college students. Some applications have required students to write essays comparing e-cigarettes with traditional cigarettes.
  • Posing e-cigarettes, hookahs, nicotine pouches, and “smoke-free” or “nicotine-free” products as a safer, healthier option — including taking advantage of the risks of Covid-19 to promote so-called “lung-friendly” alternatives. While this approach was supposed to help cigarette smokers find a way to quit smoking, it is actually quite effective in targeting new, non-tobacco-users too. After starting with these “easier” forms of tobacco or nicotine consumption, consumers are then more likely to try smoking cigarettes.
  • Presenting vaping or tobacco use as a way to reduce stress and relieve mental health issues, especially during the pandemic. (But in fact, e-cigarettes have been associated with increased anxiety.)
  • Taking advantage of the global nature of social media to encourage product placements that would not typically be allowed by one country’s advertising rules to go viral and be viewed by young people around the world.
  • Product placement in movies, shows, and videos that appeal to young people.
  • Sponsoring concerts, festivals, and sporting events to reach a large audience of all ages and to be associated with a fun, life-changing experience (that will also be widely covered on social media).
  • Placing physical ads near schools and at the eye level of children.
  • Displaying fruity and candy-themed flavors that make e-cigarette use seem harmless and youthful.
  • Using “innocent” images like cartoons, unicorns, fresh air, nature, athletes, and healthy young people to give the impression that tobacco/nicotine couldn’t be that bad for you.

Engage kids and teens in conversations about advertising

Besides talking to kids specifically about vaping, smoking, and other forms of tobacco and nicotine use, you can also add to your child’s critical thinking toolbox by helping them to understand how advertising and social media promotion works. The more kids feel “in on” the industry’s promotion tactics, the more they’ll be able to protect themselves from these subtle yet pervasive messages.

So when you scroll through social media, do online research, or use video/music streaming services together, keep an eye out for ads, sponsored content, and product placement (whether tobacco related or not).

Study the ad content carefully (including hashtags and fine print), and ask your child questions such as:

  • Do you think this is an ad or promotion for something? How can you tell?
  • Do you notice anything about the background music or the setting?
  • Does this look like something that would happen in real life?
  • How is this ad trying to make people feel?
  • Is the ad trying to make you feel like you don’t have something that other cool people do have?
  • Is the ad trying to convince you that you’ll live a certain lifestyle if you use this product? Does that make sense?
  • Why do you think the brand chose this app/movie/etc. to promote their product?
  • Why might this particular ad be showing up in your feed? (Here you can point out that advertisers often have access to user data such as age, location, profile info, the type of content you’ve interacted with in the past, and even your internet searches outside of the app.)
  • Why do you think the brand chose this actor/celebrity/influencer to promote this product?
  • If you saw one of your favorite YouTubers/TikTokers/athletes/etc. doing this promotion, do you think it would change how you feel about the product?
  • How much money and work do you think the company put into making this ad content? Why would they do all that?

After you’ve had these discussions a few times, make it into a family game. Find the marketing “traps” and give each other tricks for avoiding falling into them. Show each other the most ridiculous, most sneaky, or most convincing ads or sponsored content you come across.

Also consider other ways to reduce the amount of ad content in your life:

  • Avoid clicking or interacting with ad content in any way. Show kids how to close or skip different types of ads that pop up.
  • Go through privacy settings on all the apps you use, including how much data is collected for advertisers.
  • Switch to apps and search engines that are designed for enhanced privacy and safety, such as DuckDuckGo and YouTube Kids.
  • Compare favorite apps for ad content. Use an app alongside your child, and while scrolling/playing/watching, count the number of ads or sponsored posts you see, or add up the time you’ve had to spend watching/listening to ads. If one particular app seems worse, discuss whether they want to limit their time spent on the app, or find an alternative.
  • Report any posts that look like sponsored content but that don’t have the words “ad” or “sponsored” in the caption or description.
  • Unfollow accounts that post too much sponsored or promotional content.
  • Tell media companies if your family has been exposed to ads for inappropriate things like tobacco, marijuana, or alcohol, and ask for a stricter ad policy.

Joanna Eng is a staff writer and digital content specialist at ParentsTogether. She lives with her wife and two kids in New York, where she loves to hike, try new foods, and check out way too many books from the library.