Why Do They Do It? Portrayals of Alcohol on Facebook and MySpace

“I’m so much cooler online…Yeah I’m cooler online…”
– Brad Paisley, Online

By David Patterson, Elizabeth Kuzmich, Francis Verhaegen, and Natalie Leopold
Facebook Cheer
Why do they do it? Why do otherwise smart and savvy college and high school student post photos of themselves drinking and partying on Facebook and MySpace? To the right is just one. There are many more, some of them a lot more, um… revealing than this one.

Facebook/MySpace and the pictures posted on these websites represent a microcosm of social life. It is true that college students drink more often and in higher quantities than any other age group. Their lives include class, work, homework, club meetings…and partying. Many times, pictures of fraternity parties and keggers do not portray college students accurately. In other words, these students choose to portray only certain aspects of their lives on the Internet.

Thus, the pictures posted on Facebook/MySpace only represent some of these activities, specifically partying. For the same reason that website profiles of older adults often feature their wives and children, the profiles of college students feature what they believe is the most interesting, or ‘coolest,’ part of their life – having fun while partying and drinking.

Pictures of drinking and partying are interesting to their peers. The college social scene revolves around attending bars and fraternity parties. Just as the public looks to celebrities for cues on what to wear, where to go, and how to act, young adults look to their peers to see what are the best parties and activities, which are illustrated on Facebook/MySpace. It is unlikely that a college student would post a picture of himself or herself in the library or working at the ice cream shop.

Facebook/MySpace allows for the creation of new or altered identity and the presentation of this identity to others. Individuals can portray themselves as social, attractive, and popular by posting pictures of themselves surrounded by friends at a party. In theory, this makes them more desirable to the other sex and ‘cooler’ to their peers.

Examining the Profiles

In order to take a closer look at the prevalence of alcohol-related pictures in Facebook and MySpace profiles, 25 Facebook profiles and 25 MySpace profiles were randomly selected from a large pool of male and female individuals using a random numbers generator. The users’ ages varied from 17 to 25, essentially the average aged college students. From these profiles, the photo albums were inspected to determine whether they were alcohol or party related. Pictures containing beer cans, bottles, or handles of liquor or those taken in a bar or party setting or other miscellaneous drinking activities counted towards an “alcohol-related” picture or photo album.

Out of 50 profiles studied, males’ Facebook pictures have the most prevalent number of alcohol related pictures. More than 58% of the pictures of the males’ profiles studied contained pictures of alcohol, in either the background, or directly being consumed. Though a generous percentage was still present upon observing comparable males’ MySpace pages, the alcohol-related content decreased significantly, only accounting for approximately 32% of pictures. Female Facebook users’ profiles consisted of approximately 55.2% alcohol-related content. In a similar fashion, Female MySpace users’ pages contained approximately 55.9% alcohol-related content.

While it is difficult to come to a solid conclusion from this limited evidence of alcohol-related pictures, it does help support the hypothesis that young people in general tend to create their social identities through social networking profiles. A similar percentage of alcohol-related pictures were found in both male and female Facebook profiles, suggesting that both genders not only weigh their social identities with equal importance, but also that the creation of a strong social identity through pictures on a social networking profile is imperative.

A Digital Self

Creating a ‘digital self’ on Facebook, MySpace, or other social networking site often involves the posting of lewd, inappropriate, yet often amusing photos of oneself, one’s friends, one’s enemies, or random acquaintances, often within the context of the abusive drinking environments that are rife on college campuses.
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While such photos may be hilarious and informative about one’s social life, we question whether they reflect negatively on one’s personality or character. In a study analyzing how people consider impression management in analyzing others, it was determined that “postings suggesting excessive drinking and philandering decreased favorable ratings of targets” (Haferkamp, Creating a digital self, pdf). We disagree with this statement, with a few exceptions, and maintain that in most cases such photos merely portray the lives and activities of the average college student, and as a result do not cast a negative shadow on one’s own personality.

For example, say a person posts a photo of his friends drawing graphic art on the passed out body of a friend or acquaintance. We would consider such a photo comical and applaud the person for brightening our day with sidesplitting laughter. On the other hand, say a person posts a video of a group of people sending a passed out friend into the middle of a pond on a small, half-inflated raft. While such an act may indeed be funny, it is also terrifyingly dangerous due to the possibility of drowning, and as such, we would not think favorably of those involved in this act.

The reasons for posting pictures of alcohol abuses include sharing personal life with distant friends who may not have first hand evidence of one’s drinking feats or blunders. Pictures give proof of participation in important college social rituals such as keg races, beer olympics, and the infamous beer bong.

Moreover, students don’t just represent their own lives. While comical for some, pictures are also often used to shame one’s enemies, or even friends, by presenting one’s most embarrassing and humiliating drunken displays.

Peer Relations and Identity Formation

Given our hypothesis about students choosing to represent certain aspects of themselves and their friends and enemies online, a subsequent question arises. Why do many teenagers exclude many aspects of their lives, including family, academics, and athletics, in their creation of new online identities?

Erik Erikson, an influential developmental psychologist, categorized the period of adolescence (12-18 years of age) as one of “Identity vs. Role Confusion”. In his theory, Erikson stipulates that in this stage of development, the teenager strives to create his or her own identity. Erikson asserts that the teenager’s formulation of their identity must, by default, be formed independently of their family to discover their individuality. In this manner, it is considered normal for teenagers to place greater emphasis on peer relations than familial relations during adolescence.

By spending more time with friends (especially as a student), it follows logically that teens spend less time with their family. It is this disparity of time allocation, combined with teens’ psychological distancing from their families, that often leaves the family dynamic out of teens’ online profiles. This psychological distancing could be part of the reason that online social networks have grown so rapidly; for many families who are not technologically savvy, teens who document their lives online are distancing themselves in arguably the most effective way possible.

Teenagers seem to leave academics out of their online identities for more basic reasons: academics are simply not considered “cool” by most teenagers and are perceived by almost all teens as a necessary evil, rather than as a means of enjoyment. In addition, academic endeavors are usually solitary, making studying a taboo activity to publicize during an age where teens feel the need to connect with peers.

Another important idea is what we dubbed the “camera effect”: pictures can only be taken where there is a camera to take them. While it is difficult to say whether the effect causes the amount of drinking pictures on social networking sites or is a result of the pictures, it is obvious that more people bring their cameras to parties than to the library.

The “camera effect” does not explain the disparity between party pictures and athletic pictures, however, as cameras are frequently at athletic events (though not at workouts). One rather obvious explanation is that participating athletes, who would presumably want the pictures, are preoccupied with the sport (Never have the words, “Fourth down can wait! We need a team picture!” been spoken).

The concept that encompasses all of the above explanations for teens’ online “party animal” alter egos is that partying is apparently the preferred, popular activity among teenagers. These pictures show them engaging in socially valued activities that mark them as an individual separate from their family and also separate from things they “have to do,” like go to class, study in the library, or work a part-time job.

In general, young adults won’t create an online identity that would reflect badly on them. While family, academics, and athletics do not project badly on the individual, they also do not distinguish a person in an immediate sense or are not easy to capture. With party pictures, teens and young adults create a popular image for consumption by their peers. These peers are involved in overlapping social networks – both online and in specific college and high school settings.


Ultimately, the creation of a more desirable identity and the specific representation of a microcosm of college students’ social life leads students to display and flaunt pictures of alcohol related feats, blunders, and abuses on MySpace and Facebook Internet profiles. We party, we drink, we have fun and we show this openly and proudly to the online community. Nonetheless, we need to examine consider the negative impact that such acts may have on youths and teens that are gaining more and more access to sites once restricted to persons over age 18.

11 thoughts on “Why Do They Do It? Portrayals of Alcohol on Facebook and MySpace

  1. i would like to present a counterpoint: this article is completely off balance. the high degree of alcohol-related pictures on social networking sites has absolutely nothing to do w/ how kids choose to portray themselves online; what matters is where they’re most likely to run into a camera. i would argue that the pictures found on one’s facebook/myspace/xsocialnetworkingsite are there as a result of being in a situation where peers generally choose to take pictures (aka parties where kids are drunk and are therefore probably more likely to take pictures due to the decreased inhibition that results from, well, alcohol intoxication), not what the social network user ‘chooses’ to portray; the ‘camera effect’, as you call it. unfortunately, the authors shrug off this concept since there are apparently cameras at sporting events. the question i have for the authors of this paper is, who takes the most pictures at sporting events? kids? ehhh. parents/adults? probably. (i have no numbers of this although i think its a reasonable assumption) how many parents post pictures of their kids on social networking sites? ehh probably not many. (again i have no numbers of this, but again it’s probably a reasonable assumption) as for not posting pictures of academic events.. are there typically many cameras at such events? do middle age school employees tend to have a social networking page on which they would post pictures? do they friend/tag their students? i feel as though many factors were overlooked in a desire to prove this half baked theory. the concept of a student ACTIVELY excluding aspects of their lives (the ‘responsible’ aspects, at least) in order to be ‘cool’ is not objectively supported by any statistics or ‘hard evidence’ found in this paper; i see no references to actual student surveys regarding their own perceptions of social networking pictures and how they choose which to post.
    oh, and there’s this: “While it is difficult to come to a solid conclusion from this limited evidence of alcohol-related pictures, it does help support the hypothesis that young people in general tend to create their social identities through social networking profiles.”
    ^i would love to know how you came to that conclusion simply due to the presence of alcohol in pictures. really.

  2. Nigel, you don’t really present a counter-point. You take one idea from the piece by the students and re-work it as your own – that where young people run into cameras is the determining factor. My students dubbed this the “camera effect.”

    In your scenario, the pictures portrayed are a “a result of being in a situation where peers generally choose to take pictures, aka parties where kids are drunk and are therefore probably more likely to take pictures…” You nonetheless miss the issue of choice. Young people are choosing to take photos at these parties, and once again choosing to post these sorts of photos on their social networking profile. The question is, as the students say, is Why?

    To simply say this is “due to the decreased inhibition that results from, well, alcohol intoxication” shows that you haven’t thought through the problem. Young people are taking cameras with them to parties, they are posing for these photos, they are discussing them online. Intoxication is only one part of the scenario.

    Also, the way I understand the issue of online portrayal is not that young people are actively excluding aspects of their lives, in the sense of consciously sitting down and saying, hmm, what kind of online identity do I want to build?

    Often young people are not thinking about that. I know that college job counselors often tell students to go over their profiles carefully before applying for jobs, because they have put up these sorts of photos. Again the question becomes Why? Intoxication and the camera effect don’t address the actual putting up of the photos.

    I find it rather ironic that you say several times that you have “no numbers” and then got all hot and bothered that the students haven’t presented more data. They did get some data, and acknowledge its weaknesses. It would have been much more interesting if you had described at further length what a more formal study would have looked like.

    That said, that kind of study would not necessarily get at the anthropological reasons “why” – that there are issues of identity, symbolism, social relationships, and the like that are important in why we do what we do. The students took this angle of analysis, and backed it up through the small study as well as a qualitative examination of profiles online. Their write-up also came out of this qualitative work.

    Finally, if you are looking for more data, Megan Moreno is one researcher in this just-emerging area. The students mentioned her work during their class presentation but didn’t include her research in their post. She has two recent papers, What Are Adolescents Showing the World About Their Health Risk Behaviors on MySpace? and Display of Health Risk Behaviors on MySpace by Adolescents

  3. thanks for the reply. i suppose i may have gotten hung up on the language, which at least to me seemed to stipulate that that the selection of pictures was an overtly conscious effort of students to portray themselves as socially desirable. you say: “…the way I understand the issue of online portrayal is not that young people are actively excluding aspects of their lives, in the sense of consciously sitting down and saying, hmm, what kind of online identity do I want to build? Often young people are not thinking about that.” Note that in the conclusion, the use of the term ‘flaunt’ makes it clear that the authors believe students select pictures in order to, as the definition goes, ‘display something ostentatiously in order to provoke envy or admiration.’ i see it as ‘flaunting’ pictures online can only occur if one’s acutely aware of their online identity. i would have liked to see some data or survey results indicating that the students sampled do in fact post pictures for these reasons. also, i’m hung up on the use of the term ‘exclusion’ in this paper. you argue that students are not actively excluding aspects of their lives, which i find confusing as the definition of exclude is to ‘deny (someone) access or to bar (someone) from a place/group/privilege.’ i suggest not using this term as it is misleading and clearly implies (by definition) that this is an active choice on part of the student.
    the argument that i was attempting to present was simply that this issue seems to come down to predominantly situational factors regardless of an active or conscious desire to improve one’s image/attack one’s enemies.

  4. There’s a great new book called, Unblocked: The Blocked Side of Facebook, which shows the real side of Facebook for teenagers. This is the side of Facebook parents don’t see. Please if you have a teenager or soon to be teenager – this is a must read! As a bonus there’s a Slang and Emoticon Dictionary in the back of the book. For a short time Amazon is offering $5off Unblocked at https://www.createspace.com/3689179.
    Promo Code: UTGYQQHB

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