Substance Use Advertising on Social Media Affects Trends in Teens

It’s been over 60 years since Congress mandated health warnings be labeled on packs of cigarettes and 40 since advertising was banned on radio and television, but in recent years, teen nicotine use is on the rise again, in the form of e-cigarettes. A possible reason for this is how substances are marketed on social media, through companies, celebrities, and their peers. Because of this, substance use and social media are closely linked. As teens are becoming more addicted to social media, they are more vulnerable to brand marketing. Influencers selling clothes, makeup, and other lifestyle products play a big role in shaped teen consumer behavior; however, they also influence health behaviors. 

While most health lifestyle bloggers promote things like yoga, plant-based diets, and self-care, there is a portion that are paid to promote partying, underage drinking, marijuana use, and nicotine products. Thrill-seeking teens are more likely to normalize substance use through advertising on social media, especially if they trust the opinions of these “celebrities” more than other authority figures in their lives who are also promoting healthy behaviors. 

Shaping Attitudes toward Substance Use

Teen’s attitudes towards substance use are often a bigger predictor for substance use than accessibility, family history, and other risk factors. A teenager struggling with depression, anxiety, or trauma is more likely to use substances if they believe that it could be an effective way of coping with emotional pain. Maia Szalavitz, author of Unbroken Brain, explains addiction in teens as a learning disordera difference in the wiring of the brain that affects the way one processes information about motivation, reward, and punishment. Teens develop an understanding of social norms through social learning and observing both the healthy and risky behaviors of people around them. Spending time with other people who use substances makes teens more likely to start using to fit in or to underestimate possible consequences because “other people are doing it.” While some teens may be the first ones in their friend group to start experimenting with substances, the motivation usually comes from external factors shaping their attitude towards substances, rather than spontaneous choice.

The Role of Social Media

Teens spend hours online everyday scrolling through their social media feeds where they are exposed to hundreds of subliminal messages that shape their attitudes about what they think their life should look like, even if posts aren’t explicitly giving out advice. Platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are cracking down on alcohol and tobacco advertising to curb the rise in teen substance use, as young people are typically their target audience. Last year, the FDA announced that vaping increased nearly 80% among high schoolers from the previous year. Shortly after, companies, like Juul, closed their official social media accounts, but users are continuing to promote the product through hashtags. While these platforms can’t control what users post, they are making an effort to block hashtags being used to violate policies. While hashtags like #xanax and #heroin show up with no results, weed and alcohol have hundreds of thousands of posts, which can lead teens to overestimate how often people are using these substances.

Changing Teen’s Attitudes Towards Substances


  • Encourage teens to identify their beliefs about specific substances.
  • Question where they’ve learned those messages.
  • Challenge the accuracy of these beliefs.
  • While you can’t completely control how these risky behaviors have been marketed as attractive, focus on shifting their perspective towards positive associations with healthy behaviors, like physical activity, nutrition, and exercise with better long-term outcomes regarding physical health and self-esteem.


Elevations RTC Can Help

Elevations RTC is an all gender residential treatment center for teens ages 13-18 that focuses on the intersection of emotional and behavioral issues and substance use. We provide intensive psychiatric medical care, educational support, group therapy, and experiential learning to address teenage substance use to ensure students’ future success living healthy, productive lives. Elevations is relationship-based and emphasizes building social skills and self-esteem to move forward and develop healthier coping skills.

Call for more information about how we help teens struggling with substance use and social media addiction. We can help your family today!