Professor Christine Griffin from the Department of Psychology is calling for tighter regulations around alcohol marketing aimed at young people who use social network sites.

Professor Griffin, who is part of the UK Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Control Studies (UKCTAS), found that young people are vulnerable to marketing tactics on online sites such as Facebook and do not always recognise this as advertising.

She worked with academics from Massey University in Auckland and Wellington, New Zealand researching how 18 to 25 year olds respond to online marketing of drink brands.

The amount of money large alcohol companies are devoting to digital marketing is increasing rapidly. The study found that online alcohol marketing aimed at young adults is widespread, highly dynamic and takes an ever-expanding range of forms as new digital and mobile technologies develop. Young people tend to view targeted alcohol marketing via social media as useful and informative, seldom recognising it as advertising. However, online alcohol marketing is pervasive across a range of social media platforms, and encourages a culture of intoxication or ‘extreme drinking’ amongst young adults.

Professor Griffin is sharing her findings with an all-party parliamentary group on alcohol misuse on Wednesday (6 November) after being invited to address the group by charity Alcohol Concern.

She said: "Traditional behaviour change approaches to tackling young adult’s excessive alcohol consumption are highly individualised, and unlikely to succeed in this context. A wider range of policies and safer drinking initiatives that target the cultural norm of drinking to intoxication are required.

"Current attempts at health promotion are outmoded, and need to employ social media and mobile technologies more effectively to challenge the messages from alcohol marketing.

"We need to examine corporate practices and digital alcohol marketing strategies – and implement effective alcohol policies in the light of this information."

Professor Griffin is one of the academic experts who are part of the University’s Institute for Policy Research (IPR). The IPR brings together many of the University’s research strengths to foster inter-disciplinary research of international excellence and impact. It bridges the worlds of research, policy and professional practice to address some of the major policy challenges we face on a local, national and global scale.

The three-year study, which involved interviews with young social network users, found that sites such as Facebook play an important role before drinking, during drinking, and following drinking episodes and that sharing photos is particularly important.

She said: "The sites reinforce the idea that drinking is about fun, pleasure and socialising. Alcohol brands become an integral part of young people’s everyday lifestyles, reinforcing the widespread culture of intoxication.

"But despite the vast amount of alcohol products, events and marketing on the internet, and particularly on Facebook, this content was not always viewed as marketing. For many participants, only Facebook ads in the sidebar were interpreted as marketing. Social media therefore offers important opportunities for alcohol marketing to young people – and alcohol companies have been quick to recognise this.

"Every click and interaction with an alcohol product page on Facebook gives data about the individual. This information is used to present users with marketing that is personally tailored to them, that is targeted advertising based on your identity, interests, peer network, attendance at events, or location.

"The regulation of alcohol marketing should include new media and digital marketing, and be flexible to include new and evolving marketing activities."

Professor Griffin said keeping track of digital alcohol marketing strategies and how they are used by different groups of young people is a major endeavour. This topic will be the focus of a Bath University PhD studentship starting in October 2014 under Professor Griffin’s supervision, linked to the UK Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies which is funded by the Medical Research Council from September 2013 to August 2018.

She said: "There is a role for research on whether digital alcohol marketing increases young people’s alcohol consumption – but it’s equally (if not more) important to investigate how these marketing strategies are taken up and how they engage young people and infiltrate their everyday social lives via social media – whether they are even seen as advertising for example. Then can we consider more effective ways of challenging such practices."