MONDAY, July 20, 2009 (HealthDay News) -- Even if you make sure your teen isn't watching TV shows or movies that glamorize smoking, he or she may still be getting positive tobacco messages via the Internet, particularly from popular social networking sites such as MySpace and Xanga.
A new study, published online July 20 in Pediatrics, found that 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.
"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, from the Julius B. Richmond Center of Excellence at the American Academy of Pediatrics in Elk Grove Village, Ill.
Keeping teens from smoking is critical to ensuring that adult smoking rates go down. Ninety percent of smokers start smoking by their 21st birthday, according to the American Lung Association. About 3,600 kids between 12 and 17 try their first cigarette each day in the United States, and about one-third of those will become regular smokers, the lung association reports.
To assess what type of exposure teens are getting to tobacco messages from the Internet, the 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 (at the time of the study, MySpace was the predominant social networking site). Often, mentions of smoking or tobacco use were part of user profiles.
Forty-three percent of teens were exposed to pro-tobacco imagery, according to the study. Tobacco products were specifically sold on 50 of the pages, and 242 pages contained links to tobacco products sold on other 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.
"This study starts to increase awareness of potential exposure to tobacco messages," said pediatrician Dr. Deborah Moss, from Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, who added that studies have shown tobacco exposure in movies can make teens more likely to smoke, and that Internet exposure may have the same effect.
"One of the things these researchers are concerned about is the social networking sites," said Moss. "Teens are sensitive to the perception of normalcy in behaviors, and from these sites, they could get a misperception that everyone is smoking."
Sward said one of the most important ways to make sure your child doesn't smoke is to not smoke yourself. "The strongest predictor of whether or not kids will smoke is whether their parents smoke," she said. She also recommended letting them know about your struggles with your tobacco addiction. Let them know the downside of smoking, she suggested.
If you don't smoke, Moss said you still need to talk with your kids, and it's important to let them know that you don't want them to smoke. "Kids of parents who openly express disapproval and have rules against smoking are less likely to smoke," she said.
Moss also advised parents to keep computers in public places, and to let your teens know that you might periodically review the pages they've visited.
The American Academy of Family Physicians has information for teens on why they shouldn't smoke.