Laws bar advertising cannabis to teens, but that doesn’t mean they always work.

In a new survey, researchers found that teens still see a lot of positive cannabis messages through social media posts.

These messages influenced their intentions and actual use of cannabis, the survey found. When young people saw anti-cannabis messages, the intent to use lessened, but young people saw fewer of those messages, the study authors said.

“Youth, in particular, have really grown up bombarded with cannabis information compared to previous generations,” said first author Jessica Willoughby, an associate professor of communications at Washington State University (WSU) in Pullman. “We found that they were seeing more positive messages about using cannabis and a lot less about the risks.”

For the study, the researchers surveyed 350 teens and 966 college students across Washington state.

Recreational marijuana has been legal in the state since 2012, though it has regulations aimed at preventing advertising cannabis to minors. These rules bar the use of cartoons or youth-oriented celebrities in cannabis advertising.

Of course, the study noted, individuals can still post about cannabis on social media.

And more than 80% of survey participants reported seeing pro-cannabis messages on social media. These posts talked about being high or claimed marijuana was harmless. The pro-cannabis messages most often encountered were from celebrities or in song lyrics.

Teens and college students who saw more positive messages were more likely to say they intended to use the drug.

“Parents might not understand that if their kid is using a social media site — whether it’s Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook or Snapchat — they are going to see cannabis messages. That’s just the reality,” said study co-author Stacey Hust, a professor of communication at WSU.

“This means we need to be getting training into schools at much younger ages,” Hust said in a university news release. “At the very least, middle school and high school health classes need to talk about cannabis and how it can be harmful to the developing brain.”

Survey participants said they also encountered some anti-cannabis messages, including that it was harmful or for losers.

Those messages did have some indirect impact, the researchers noted. Anti-cannabis messages appeared to lower intention to use in youths who already felt using the drug could have negative outcomes.

“Prevention efforts can have an impact,” Willoughby said. “Since youth are seeing more of that positive cannabis content, it’s worthwhile to put out more content highlighting the risks, especially to the young people like them.”

The study was partially funded through Washington state’s initiative measure 502, which taxes production processing and wholesale retail sales of marijuana.

The report was recently published online in the journal Health Communication.

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on marijuana use and teens.

SOURCE: Washington State University, news release, Feb. 1, 2023