Ask Facebook: how drunk were you last night?

By Lynley Hargreaves 31/12/2014

Professor Antonia Lyons
Professor Antonia Lyons

Feeling the after effects of a big New Years Eve? Then consider the role social media had to play. Massey University’s Professor Antonia Lyons and her team have studied young adults’ drinking and social media use. They found an airbrushed drinking culture with insidious alcohol marketing acting in ‘friend’ relationships. She explains why it matters that alcohol advertising is more targeted and widespread than you thought.

What might New Years Eve have looked like for the participants of your study?

Our participants were Pakeha, Maori and Pasifika young people aged between 18-25 years, from a range of backgrounds and geographic locations across the North Island. We asked groups of friends to talk to us about their use of social networking technology, their socialising, and their drinking. We also did interviews with a subset of these people, who showed us their Facebook pages and talked about what they do online. Most of our participants drank alcohol regularly and would be considered to have heavy consumption levels. Drinking alcohol was an immensely social activity that involved being with friends, both those who were physically present and those they were interacting with on Facebook. The pleasure of drinking alcohol came from being with friends, and everyone getting a buzz on together.

New Year’s Eve would likely be a time when these young adults spend time and socialise with their friends. This would involve the regular routine of preloading with cheaper alcohol at someone’s home, over a few hours, before heading into town to go to bars and clubs. Alternatively, parties in people’s homes without the hassle of going into town would also be appealing for some. Throughout this socialising photos will be being taken (and sometimes uploaded) by participants themselves or by professional photographers in town working for bars or pubs (or Snapstar).

Were there differences between the groups?

For Pākehā participants, drinking heavily and sharing drinking photos online were behaviours that tended to be viewed positively and without much reflection, whereas for Māori and Pasifika participants, drinking (and having drinking photos online) was seen as more transgressive and problematic, in part due to cultural differences with family and church, but also because they are more aware of being scrutinised within our society.

There were also marked gender differences, with young women doing much more of the routine photographing of socialising and drinking, and then uploading photos to Facebook, and young men distancing themselves from this work (although they enjoyed the benefits of being ‘tagged’ in photos, and often did take photos themselves of ‘major’ social  events).  Young women also spent a great deal more time checking photos, and untagging themselves from other people’s posted photos, to ensure they looked appropriate (i.e. feminine, drinking, having fun, but not looking too ‘tragic’).  This work sometimes involved setting alarms to wake up and check tagged photos even if it was 2am. Both young women and men talked about how much more important it was for women to ensure they created the ‘right’ appearance online, a form of femininity that is respectable and not slutty or looking too drunk.

So people like to look good online. But what does this mean in terms of alcohol use?

It creates an airbrushed drinking culture where it’s all about the good times, and so people looking in from the outside (such as younger siblings) see that alcohol is overwhelmingly about having fun with friends, and drinking heavily leads only to positive experiences. This also normalises a culture of intoxication. Within the individual interviews, participants started sharing some of their negative experiences of heavy drinking as they looked through their photos. Positive drinking photos on Facebook sometimes led to participants telling stories about what happened that night, such as accidents (falling down stairs), vomiting, being unconscious, being physically assaulted. The friends who were there on the night out knew the stories behind the photos, but everyone else looking at them didn’t. In this way photos of drinking allowed the creation of in-groups (those who were there) and out-groups among networks on Facebook.

Is the alcohol industry to blame?

The alcohol industry is extremely good at operating in this environment. Brands, clubs, bars, and retail outlets all blur the distinction between personal and commercial content. The very nature of Facebook means that commercial interests interact in the same manner as friends do, coming up in newsfeeds, sharing information, products, promotions, which are also transmitted throughout networks by users themselves. Participants in the study often viewed this kind of marketing as useful and timely information (e.g. come to this bar within the next hour and get half-price drinks, or women have free entry until 11pm) and didn’t recognise it explicitly as advertising.

This further reinforces the culture of intoxication, and through user networks the messages are extended easily into the Facebook content of young people who are not legally able to purchase alcohol. This works via newsfeeds, comments, likes, games, competitions and so on (e.g. a thirteen year old may see an alcohol brand in their newsfeed because their older cousin has ‘liked’ it). Evidence shows that this sort of exposure will result in earlier and heavier drinking by young people. And the more information people give online, for example by ‘liking’ brands, the more data social media companies data can use for targeted marketing.

How do you stop people drinking too much?

Within the media we frequently hear reports about excessive alcohol consumption framed in ways that blame individual young people for making bad drinking choices. But we have a society that is saturated in alcohol-related content, and this is even more apparent on the social networking sites used ubiquitously by young people. We have a context of cheap alcohol, easy access, targeted marketing, and a great deal of alcohol sponsorship of events and activities that are highly valued by young people (e.g. sports – Steinlager and the All Blacks – as well as music festivals).

Recently (December 2014)  the Ministerial Forum on Alcohol Advertising and Sponsorship released their report which clearly points out that alcohol marketing plays a role in heavy alcohol consumption and subsequent harm. They make a number of important recommendations for reducing and regulating alcohol marketing and sponsorship to protect young people. Hopefully the full range of their recommendations will be taken seriously by the current government. Unfortunately, however, the report barely touched on the issue of alcohol marketing that is occurring through social media, and this is one area that should not be ignored.

These interviews showcase researchers supported by the Marsden Fund which, since 1994, has been supporting fundamental, investigator-led research in New Zealand.