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Internet May Be Newest Area for Teen Tobacco Exposure

by The Kid's Doctor Staff

No matter how much control you exercise over your teen’s TV and movie watching, they may still be receiving positive tobacco messages via the Internet. In particular that exposure could come from popular social networking sites like MySpace and Xanga.

A new study shows the Internet is the newest place for kids to get exposure to positive messages on tobacco use. Although tobacco content was found on less than 1 percent of the pages that teens view, there were more pro-tobacco pages than anti-tobacco pages. The study appears in the July 20, 2009 online issue of Pediatrics.

“We found that only a small proportion of Internet sites visited by adolescents contained tobacco messages. The significance of these messages in social networking and their impact on adolescent tobacco attitudes and use remain unclear,” wrote the study’s authors.

According to the American Lung Association, 90 percent of smokers start smoking by their 21st birthday. Every day in the U.S., about 3,600 kids between 12 and 17 try their first cigarette and about one-third of those will become regular smokers.

For the study, researchers randomly selected 346 teenagers with home Internet access. The teens allowed the study authors to track all of their page views for a 30-day period. The researchers then searched those pages for tobacco-related content.

In all, the study volunteers viewed 1.2 million Web pages. Of those, 8,702 (0.72 percent) contained tobacco or smoking content. Pro-tobacco messages were found on 1,916 pages and anti-tobacco content was included on 1,572 pages. The authors said the tobacco messages were “complex or unclear” on 5,055 pages. More than half of the tobacco-related page views, 53 percent, came from social networking sites.

“That kids are being exposed to tobacco products in all facets of their lives is not a surprise,” said Erika Sward, director of national advocacy for the lung association. “And I’m not surprised that the tobacco companies are on the cutting edge. They’re always creative in finding new ways to target and prey on kids.”

Sward said the good news was that the study found that not all of the content teens were viewing was pro-tobacco, but the study highlights the need for legislation regarding how tobacco products are promoted online, and that tobacco-control programs should design counter-marketing methods for the Internet.

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