As a growing number of states are legalizing marijuana or considering legislation to do so, pot's public profile is on the rise--and so is its presence on Twitter and other social media sites. A new study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research has found that a number of those tweets are reaching young people each day, with hundreds of thousands of American youth getting pro-pot messages through their Twitter feeds multiple times a day.
The study, which was conducted at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, followed a Twitter account, Weed Tweets@stillblazintho, which has 1 million followers. Analyzing data over an 8-month period, during which time the group posted an average of 11 tweets a day, the study reported that 73 percent of the group's followers were under age 19.
"These are risky ages when young people often begin experimentation with drugs," explained [principal investigator Patricia A.] Cavazos-Rehg, an assistant professor of psychiatry. "It's an age when people are impressionable and when substance-use behaviors can transition into addiction. In other words, it's a very risky time of life for people to be receiving messages like these."
Cavazos-Rehg said it isn't possible from this study to "connect the dots" between positive marijuana tweets and actual drug use, but she cites previous research linking substance use to messages from television and billboards. She suggested this also may apply to social media.
"Studies looking at media messages on traditional outlets like television, radio, billboards and magazines have shown that media messages can influence substance use and attitudes about substance use," she said. "It's likely a young person's attitudes and behaviors may be influenced when he or she is receiving daily, ongoing messages of this sort."
The researchers also learned that the Twitter account they tracked reached a high number of African-Americans and Hispanics compared with Caucasians. Almost 43 percent were African-American, and nearly 12 percent were Hispanic. In fact, among Hispanics, Weed Tweets ranked in the top 30 percent of all Twitter accounts followed.
"It was surprising to see that members of these minority groups were so much more likely than Caucasians to be receiving these messages," Cavazos-Rehg said, adding that there is particular concern about African-Americans because their rates of marijuana abuse and dependence are about twice as high as the rate in Caucasians and Hispanics.
The findings point to the need for a discussion about the pro-drug messages young people receive, Cavazos-Rehg said.
Image: Tween holding a tablet, via Shutterstock