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Vaping and Instagram: A Content Analysis of e-Cigarette Posts Targeted at Young Adults

The use of electronic nicotine delivery systems, or vaping, has skyrocketed over the past several years, particularly among 18–24-year-olds, in what the Federal Drug Administration has called an epidemic. While vaping may be beneficial for reducing the consumption of traditional cigarettes, research suggests that this practice can negatively affect academic performance, increase aggression, reduce sleep quality, impair cognition, and increase depression.

Social media has become a major channel for promoting vaping and vaping devices, but little is known about the characteristics of these promotional social media posts. A new study by University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications Advertising Assistant Professor Jordan Alpert, Advertising Associate Professor Huan Chen, doctoral students Yoo Jin Chung and Yu Angela Mu, and University of West Florida professor Heather Riddell, sheds some light on how vaping is being promoting.

The researchers conducted a content analysis of vaping-related Instagram posts and found that the posts that may appeal to young adults portray vaping primarily with colorful imagery and rarely incorporate health information or warnings. Using the hashtag #vape and #vapelife, the study found that the top vape-related Instagram posts were used as a means for those that vape to express themselves, advocate for vaping, and gain likes as well as followers for their account.

However, unlike other social media platforms that promote vape flavors, aspirational lifestyles and tricks performed with vapor, Instagram posts predominantly focus on the vaping device itself. There were no reported fictional spokespersons like those utilized by the cigarette companies of the past and posts rarely showed a human as the focal point. Also, Instagram posts rarely portrayed the hypothetical rewards previously associated with nicotine products such as being seen as “cool” or rebellious.

The authors suggest that the Centers for Disease Control consider using its Instagram to focus more heavily on curbing vaping among young adults through attractive, educational, and interactive content. While vaping products were not directly promoted on the Instagram posts studied, the peer pressure associated with social media use and colorful imagery is undeniable.

The authors recommend that future research should look at the motivation to like an Instagram image as well as compare individual posts to those of the major vape-producing brands.  They also recommend additional research deciphering whether specific visual patterns are more engaging than others, and using a cause-and-effect approach to study whether vaping-related Instagram posts do impact adolescent attitudes and behaviors concerning vaping.

The original article, “Vaping and Instagram: A Content Analysis of e-Cigarette Posts Using the Content Appealing to Youth (CAY) Index,” was published in Substance Use & Misuse on March 22, 2021.

Authors: Jordan M. Alpert, Huan Chen , Heather Riddell , Yoo Jin Chung and Yu Angela Mu.

This summary was written by Dana Hackley, Ph.D.

Posted: May 14, 2021
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