What Facebook tells us about college students and alcohol dependence

A team of our (smart) researchers from SMAHRT descended on Washington, D.C. last weekend for the Pediatric Academic Societies annual meeting. SMAHRT = Social Media and Adolescent Health Research Team, which is based at Seattle Children’s Research Institute. This week, we’ll feature some of their new research. Megan Moreno, MD, leads the group and is a senior author on all of the research studies. Some of the researchers are based at other academic institutions, demonstrating the collaborative spirit of SMAHRT.

Alcohol bottles, distressed young adult

As a recent undergraduate at one of the top party schools in the United States – Princeton Review’s words, not mine – I have had the opportunity of witnessing worrisome alcohol use at high levels. Freshman year, I can’t count the number of times I came across a person passed out in the bathroom or the number of times I heard the phrase “I’m not drunk yet, let’s take 2,3,4,5 shots. I want to get wasted.”

In college, you definitely learn how to deal with daunting situations like this right away. Alcohol can cause people to do some scary and uncharacteristic things. I think this is what drew me to studying college students with alcohol dependence issues. Additionally, dependence has been correlated with a plethora of life problems, health problems, social problems, and emotional problems, all of which overlap to make a very interesting and worthy topic to study.

It is unique that such a small portion of the population—less than four percent in the U.S., according to a 2006 study—falls into the dependent category. Why? What is it about them? And could Facebook help us reach them before they develop a problem?

Using Facebook to predict alcohol dependence

How can we help young people acknowledge the problem of dependence early, so that they don’t have to struggle with it their entire lives? What is an innovative way to reach those that we haven’t been able to reach before? And most importantly, how can we better understand them and relate to them?

Our research team studied alcohol dependence in college students during the first year in college in hopes of identifying predictors. We used the theory of planned behavior, which states that attitudes predict intentions, which predict behavior. We also used Facebook, to see if we could identify those who would become dependent alcohol users.

In our study, we found that alcohol dependence exists in college, and can be detected as early as freshman year. Seven percent of freshman, or 22 out of 338 students, scored in the dependent range on the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT), a screening tool used in clinics across the U.S. Additionally, we found that this population had a noticeable shift in attitudes, intentions, and behaviors toward alcohol use over the course of freshman year.

The most thrilling part of the study was what we found when we looked at Facebook profiles. At the beginning of the study, only a third of those 22 participants had displayed alcohol on their profile, and only one person had referenced intoxication or problem drinking. By the end of the study, the summer after freshman year, all but three participants referenced alcohol and more than half displayed references to intoxication/problematic drinking.

To me, this is amazing. If we could help people discover their dependence issues by using clues from Facebook, maybe we can help them sooner and more adequately acknowledge that they may have a problem and maybe we could plan interventions via the site.

Megan Pumper is a clinical research associate with the Social Media and Adolescent Health Research Team at Seattle Children’s Research Institute.