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Using Facebook to Study Substance Use

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Girl on computer

Most people would never want to relive adolescence, but Dr. Megan Moreno’s team does it every day, by following the Facebook posts of hundreds of young adults who participate in their research.

Moreno and Dr. Dimitri Christakis are leading a study that monitors what college students post about their substance use on Facebook. The project’s goals are to see if this is an effective way to identify when adolescents engage in risky alcohol or drug behavior, and to lay the foundation for new interventions that prevent substance-related injuries and other problems.

“Substance-related harm is one of the biggest causes of injury and death among college students, and we think Facebook and other social media could be powerful tools to help us prevent it,” Moreno says.

For the study, Moreno and her colleagues are tracking Facebook posts by 600 students at the University of Washington and the University of Wisconsin who volunteered to participate. Each month, Moreno’s team reads through the students’ posts and looks for references to alcohol and drugs. When a person’s posts show their substance use is escalating or refer to risky behaviors – like drinking and driving – the researchers offer to do an assessment and, potentially, connect the student with counseling or other resources.

“One exciting thing is that, usually, this escalating behavior would go on for quite a while before any clinician became aware of it,” Moreno says. “Facebook lets us keep track of it in real time and step in a lot earlier than we might otherwise be able to.”

The researchers will also interview each participant several times during the four-year study. This will help determine how the participant’s substance use is changing and whether their Facebook posts reflect that.

“Our earlier studies showed that, when someone talks about alcohol on Facebook, they’re usually telling the truth,” Moreno says. “That means we can use a person’s social media posts to evaluate whether they’re at risk for a substance problem or for substance-related harm.”

The researchers will also conduct focus groups to let participants weigh in on whether particular Facebook-based interventions might be effective. For instance, Moreno is considering a model where a college dorm’s resident advisor (RA) “friend” their advisees on Facebook. The RAs could then monitor how the students talk about substance use, and offer support, access to counseling and other resources when they see an increase in use.

“One of our goals for the next year is to identify exactly what an intervention might look like,” Moreno says.

The study is paving the way for Moreno to use social media to address other common problems affecting adolescents. For instance, she and her colleagues are pursuing similar research on depression, and have learned that people who say they’re depressed on Facebook are usually looking for help and are open to being contacted. Now Moreno’s team is investigating exactly how this help should be offered.

“We’re seeing that most students don’t want university administrators to approach them about their problems, but they might be OK with being contacted by a nurse,” Moreno says. “Figuring this out ahead of time gives us the best chance of designing effective interventions, and also gives us a model we can apply to many other issues.”

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