Yet another downside of social networking has been unraveled. It can be contributing to increasing alcoholism among the youth, according to research at the Massey University, New Zealand.
Studies by Masters and Honours candidates from the School of Psychology show that online computer and mobile phone use has become integral to young people's drinking cultures. Alcohol marketing is now seamlessly integrated into young adults' online worlds too - contributing to increasing risk and harm.
The studies are part of a larger three-year research project that explores the convergence of social networking and youth drinking cultures, which received $864,000 from the Marsden Fund in 2009.
Lead researcher, Associate Professor Antonia Lyons, says that research is now nearing the halfway stage allowing some trends to emerge from the three pilot studies as well as preliminary findings from more detailed data collection by three PhD students.
"Online culture reinforces the binge drinking culture," Dr Lyons says. "It is being employed to organise events, communicate with people while out drinking, and enabling participants to share photos of their socialising and drinking online the following day via Facebook."
Researchers talked with small groups of young people aged 18 to 25 about different aspects of their online behaviour, drinking experiences and exposure to celebrities drinking via pop culture websites.
Dr Lyons says while the respondents believed the links between social networking and alcohol promotion were pleasurable, fun and exciting, they were not aware of how closely aligned the marketing of alcohol had become with their online usage.
"For example many participants see themselves as 'savvy' online in respect to alcohol promotion and yet they spend time on alcohol brand sites, 'friend' them on Facebook, and engage in online interactions (such as playing alcohol-centred games or posting photos)."
The emergence of websites and electronic applications that link individual interests with alcohol products has reinforced understandings of the linkages between social networking sites and marketing. Drinkify is a website that matches a person's musical tastes to particular drinks. One new iPhone cover has been designed to double as a bottle opener and it comes with a free app that counts how many bottles have been opened, and plays selected music each time it is used, she says. Other applications offer services that mitigate intoxicated behaviour; Drunk Text Saviour sends out pre-emptive warnings to a drunk texter alerting them they are about to send an abusive or derogatory text.
Dr Lyons says the research has also revealed that just as some people saw excessive alcohol use as a way of excusing behaviour - some social networking users were expressing similar attitudes about their Facebook pages.
Researchers are using innovative research methods like the use of screen capture technology to show what websites focus group participants favour and what specific parts of a particular website are meaningful to individual users.
Final results from the study would begin to emerge in the next six months.