Internet Chameleons: An Experimental Study on Imitating Smoking Peers Through Digital Interaction

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Abstract

Introduction:

Existing experimental studies indicate that young adults are more likely to smoke in the company of real-life smoking peers. However, it is still unclear whether imitation can explain these findings or whether alternatively the mere smell and not the smoking behavior may have been the trigger to smoke. One way to study this issue is by analyzing the exposure to real-life smoking peers without the possibility of smelling the smoker’s cigarette, for example, during digital interaction on the Internet. Although many youngsters meet and interact with each other online, research on exposure to smoking peers through the Internet has not yet been investigated.

Methods:

This experiment was conducted among 36 daily smoking young people aged 16–24 years. Smoking behavior was observed during a 30-min joint music assignment. During this assignment, the confederate and participant sat in 2 separate rooms and interacted with each other online and via webcam.

Results:

The findings show that young adults interacting with heavy-smoking peers on the Internet and via webcam smoked significantly more cigarettes than those who interacted with nonsmoking peers.

Conclusions:

Young adult smokers strongly imitate smoking in interaction with peers in online communication via webcam, without smelling the smoker's cigarette. Antismoking policies and smoking cessation programs should focus on (raising awareness of) avoiding smoking peers, even during digital interaction.

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