So That's Why It's Called a Hashtag

New research finds Tweets supporting—or celebrating—pot use outnumber messages critical of the drug by at least 12 to one.
Author:
Publish date:
(Photo: ashton/Flickr)

(Photo: ashton/Flickr)

Where do your kids get their guidance about recreational drug use? If the answer is Twitter—and given that service's popularity among young people, it's very likely that's one of their sources—a new study provides cause for concern.

Research finds that Twitter messages that mention marijuana overwhelmingly express a positive attitude toward the drug. And a vast majority of those tweets were sent by young people, who were presumably communicating with their peers.

"Individuals tweeting pro-marijuana messages were teens and young adults, and the amount of pro-marijuana tweeters dropped considerably with increasing age," writes a research team led by psychiatrist Patricia Cavazos-Rehg of Washington University in St. Louis. "Only 11 percent of those who tweeted pro-marijuana messages were aged 25 years or older."

The researchers began with 7.6 million tweets collected between February 5 and March 5, 2014, all of which contained one or more marijuana-related keywords, including "weed," "pot," "blunt," joint," or "stoned." (They note that about 15 billion tweets get sent in a typical month, which means approximately one in every 2,000 mention marijuana.)

Twitter helps spread the word that smoking pot is an important component of being cool and fitting in. And while that's hardly the most dangerous message kids are likely to receive, it could have serious consequences for some.

They then narrowed down their search to those sent by people in the top 25th percentile in terms of both number of followers and Klout score, which "considers the extent to which the user's content is acted upon by being clicked, replied, and/or retweeted." That left them with a sample of 6,620 tweets.

Of those, 77 percent expressed pro-pot sentiments, while only five percent argued against its use. Another 18 percent were either neutral or ambiguous. "The potential reach of the pro-marijuana tweets (sum of the followers of the tweets: 50.4 million) was approximately 12 times higher than the reach of the anti-marijuana tweets," the researchers report.

The most-often expressed sentiment, expressed in 32 percent of the tweets, was that the writer "wants, needs, or plans to use marijuana." Another 17 percent wrote about their "frequent, regular, or heavy use." Serious arguments—that pot should be legalized, and/or that it has legitimate health benefits—came in a distant third at 13 percent.

"The concern that we have about pro-marijuana Twitter chatter is the potential for social contagion and increased marijuana use in adolescents," Cavazos-Rehg and her colleagues write. While conceding that they "cannot verify the degree to which tweets correspond with (actual) marijuana use," they point out that it is "quite possible that young people boast about their marijuana use behaviors on Twitter to gain approval from peer groups and/or increase their social status."

In other words, Twitter helps spread the word that smoking pot is an important component of being cool and fitting in. And while that's hardly the most dangerous message kids are likely to receive, it could have serious consequences for some.

"When individuals start using marijuana as teenagers, the likelihood for developing dependence increases to about one in six," the researchers note. "Repeated marijuana use during adolescence is also harmful on the developing brain, and can have long-term impacts on educational, professional, and social achievements."

One other finding worth mentioning: In 10 percent of the Twitter messages the researchers examined, the writer reported he or she was "using marijuana or high at the moment." Perhaps we can add to the drug lexicon the abbreviation TUI: Tweeting Under the Influence.

Related