Do online friends influence drinking habits?

Study finds drinking habits of those in a person's social network play "major" role in person's own level of alcohol consumption. Does that translate to online circles?

Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore is based in Portland, Oregon, and has written for Wired, The Christian Science Monitor, and public radio. Her semi-obscure hobbies include climbing, billiards, board games that take up a lot of space, and piano.
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
2 min read

Is this Flippy Cup master under the influence of a friend? elgin.jessica/Flickr
Think you're not molded by family and friends? Think again.

A Harvard University researcher who analyzed data from the Framingham Heart Study--tracking various habits of 12,067 people for 32 years--concludes that a person's social network plays a major role in determining one's level of alcohol consumption. (The study appears this week in the Annals of Internal Medicine.)

"We've found that the influence of your friends and people you have connections with can affect your health just as much as your family history or your genetic background [can]," says Nicholas Christakis, professor of medicine at Harvard and lead author of the study. "With regard to alcohol consumption, your social network may have both positive and negative health consequences, depending on the circumstances."

Since the data was culled from subjects between 1971 and 2003, most of the people's connections studied were offline only. Still, the degree to which the drinking habits of our connections influence our own begs further inspection of whether online networks function similarly.

Christakis, who is also author of the book "Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Change Us," found that a person is 50 percent more likely to drink heavily if directly connected to a friend who drinks heavily, and 36 percent more likely if connected to a friend of a friend who does. This impact extends to three degrees of separation, but seems to have more to do with connections to heavy drinkers than to any other kind.

Christakis suggests that the effect of these networks on personal health makes the case for identifying social networks to better eliminate "obstacles to abstaining." Since online social networks enable us to more easily identify who we know, even to specific degrees, and since they are today such a part of most people's social interactions, it's time to study whether these connections play the same role as the offline ones he studied.