Drinking cultures and social networking sites

Called Flaunting it on Facebook, the three-year research project is investigating how technologies such as social networking sites and digital phones and cameras have become central to young people’s drinking culture and also to alcohol marketing.

One of the lead researchers on the project, Dr Fiona Hutton from the Institute of Criminology within the School of Social and Cultural Studies, says young people routinely use sites like Facebook to organise drinking events, communicate with each other, and share photos of drinking sessions the next day.

“Those selling alcohol are also heavily employing social networking technologies to encourage consumption,” says Dr Hutton.

Examples include alcohol brands, bars and clubs having their own Facebook pages where young people can play games, win prizes and sometimes find photos of themselves uploaded by the bar owners.

“Taking photos during a drinking session is often presented as a service which allows young people to leave their camera at home for the night.”

Dr Hutton says although alcohol marketing is seamlessly integrated into social networking sites, a surprising number of young people do not see this as problematic or likely to affect them.

“Some pilot study participants came across as media savvy and you would not expect them to be taken in by the alcohol marketing strategies on Facebook.  However, at the same time, they are likely to be a ‘friend’ of particular brands or their favourite bar or club, and regularly spend time on their sites.”

She says researchers hope further analysis of the data gathered will help them better understand why young people appear to engage so readily with this type of online alcohol marketing.

The project is led by Associate Professor Antonia Lyons from Massey University in Wellington. Other lead researchers, along with Dr Hutton, are Dr Ian Goodwin, Associate Professor Tim Mcreanor and Associate Professor Helen Moewaka Barnes from Massey, together with two overseas researchers from the United Kingdom and the United States.

The work has received $865,000 from the Marsden Fund and focuses on young people aged between 18 and 25.

Dr Hutton says the research is breaking new ground in the variety of ways information is being gathered from participants as well as how it is being analysed.

Young people taking part in focus groups or one-on-one interviews are videoed, allowing researchers to look at their expressions and body language while reading a transcript of their talk, and screen capture technology records their online behaviour when on social networking sites.

Dr Hutton says most of the research into young people’s drinking in New Zealand has focused on behaviour rather than the culture associated with it. “There’s also been a big focus on the harms and risks of young people drinking too much but much less is known about the attractions and drivers of drinking and socialising for young people.”

It’s been relatively easy to find study participants which Dr Hutton attributes to a desire among young people to tell their own stories.

“There’s quite a furore around the dangers of young people binge drinking and doom and gloom about the impact of social networking but very few people have asked those at the centre of it what they think.”

The study is moving into its third year during which researchers will analyse the data they have found and look at drinking cultures across Pakeha, Maori and Pacifica young people, as well as across genders and socio-economic groups.

Victoria University of Wellington