Snapchatting Under the Influence

Binge-drinking college students use social media profusely while intoxicated.

Posted Dec 21, 2018

What happens on the internet, stays on the internet. Forever.” is a cautionary maxim I find myself frequently reciting to my adolescent daughter, who just started using social media platforms. I’m grateful that Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, and Facebook didn’t exist during my adolescence. I'd be wildly embarrassed to have my Generation X days of Bright Lights, Big City binge drinking and other forms of substance abuse in the 1980s memorialized for posterity. (i.e., “Look! There’s an old Polaroid of grampa wearing a toga and a lampshade on his head. What is he doing?!?”)

A new study, published today in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs (Ceballos et al., 2018), reports that college-age students who binge on alcohol tend to post photos on social media while under the influence. They often regret their drunken posts the morning after, and sometimes, forever after.

Pexels/Creative Commons
Source: Pexels/Creative Commons

Mixing excessive alcohol with social networking apps can create a shame-inducing cocktail that is often a recipe for disaster. Unfortunately, “Snapchatting Under the Influence,” appears to be a new form of 'addiction' among young adults that is reaching epidemic proportions.

"During these times when young students are feeling disinhibited by alcohol, they may be even more likely than usual to post inappropriate material without considering the future impact," lead researcher, Natalie Ceballos of the Department of Psychology at Texas State University in San Marcos, said in a statement. "In some cases, these sorts of mistakes have even influenced college admission and later job applications."

On the bright side, Ceballos also views social media as an underutilized tool for addressing alcohol use disorders (AUD) and facilitating harm-reduction for binge drinkers. "While college students' reliance on social media has been identified as a risk factor for alcohol-related problems, it might also present an opportunity for innovative interventions,” Ceballos said.

Social media trends among young people change quickly. Therefore, Ceballos keeps her finger on the pulse of specific social networking platforms college students use most frequently while under the influence of alcohol.

For their recent study, Ceballos et al. found that Snapchat and Instagram were the most popular sites used by college students, followed by Twitter. "Facebook is waning in popularity among younger use, whereas Snapchat is becoming more popular,” the authors said. They recommend that harm-reduction interventions should continuously be adapted to work with trending social media platforms. At the time of this research, binge drinkers were using Snapchat most frequently. (Full disclosure: As someone in my 50s, I do not have Snapchat on my phone and barely understand how this app works. Hence the need to research this topic and educate myself.)

Do Photographs in "Snaps" Really Disappear from Snapchat and the Internet?

According to some research I've done on this topic, one of the problems with Snapchat is that many users wrongly assume that because the photos in a snap technically "disappear" after a short amount of time; they think snaps can’t be permanent. This is not the case. As Christine Elgersma explains in a June 2018 article, "Parents' Ultimate Guide to Snapchat," for Common Sense Media,

“If you set a time limit on a snap, it will disappear after it's viewed. However, recipients can take a screenshot of an image using their phones or a third-party screen-capture app. A phone screen-capture will notify the sender that the image was captured. But third-party apps don't trigger a notification. For these reasons, it's best teens understand that nothing done online is really temporary. Before sending a sexy or embarrassing snap of themselves or someone else, it's important to remember that the picture could circulate the school by tomorrow morning.”

For their most recent study on binge drinking and social media usage, Ceballos’ research group recruited 425 undergraduate college students—ages 18 through 25—and asked them to self-report the quantity of their alcohol consumption and their frequency of "binge" drinking. (For this study, binge drinking was defined as five drinks at one time for men and four or more for women.)

The researchers also tracked students' use of social networking apps and whether someone had posted any social media messages while binge drinking or intoxicated. Students were also asked if they’d experienced negative consequences based on social media use while under the influence.

Ceballos and colleagues found that student binge drinkers were much more likely than “non-binge drinking” peers to have posted something on social media while they were drinking with friends or intoxicated.

Interestingly, binge drinkers also showed greater "intensity" toward their use of social media; they were more emotionally invested in apps like Snapchat and viewed social media as part of their identity. Across the board, binge drinkers tended to use social media platforms more profusely than non-binge drinkers.

"These findings suggest that, in terms of common brain reward mechanisms, perhaps when students get a positive response on social media, this might be rewarding to them in a way that is similar to other addictive behaviors, and then, over time, they get hooked," Ceballos said.

Because of many people's round-the-clock relationship to social media, Ceballos speculates that Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, could be used to reduce heavy drinking by delivering "in the moment" harm-reduction messages designed to disrupt binge drinking patterns.

Natalie Ceballos is optimistic that sometime soon, targeted social media interventions could be timed precisely to occur very soon after someone begins drinking socially, but before his or her blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is through the roof. Timing these interventions perfectly might prevent someone's social drinking from escalating into binge drinking.

"As for what form this intervention might take, we're not really there yet," Ceballos concluded. "However, I believe that pairing recent advances in alcohol biosensor technology (to detect a drinking episode when it occurs) and ecological momentary interventions (to reach out to clients via mobile phones 'in the moment') could make this type of intervention a reality in the very near future."


Natalie A. Ceballos, Krista Howard, Stephanie Dailey, Shobhit Sharma, and Tom Grimes. "Collegiate Binge Drinking and Social Media Use Among Hispanics and Non-Hispanics." Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs (First published online: December 21, 2018) DOI: 10.15288/jsad.2018.79.868