Can Facebook be used to find young alcoholics?

Can Facebook be used to find young alcoholics?

SEATTLE -- Local researchers are scanning college students’ social media sites to identify which will become alcoholics later in life.

Staff at the Seattle Children's Research Institute have analyzed the Facebook profiles of college freshman and found the majority of those who were alcohol dependent left clues of their drinking problem on social media.

"I think that people really post things that align with their lives," said Megan Pumper, a clinical research associate of Seattle Children's Social Media and Adolescent Health Research Team.

"Alcohol dependent people are such an important population to look at. These are the people that need the most help. These are people who may not know they have a problem."

Researchers were looking to find new ways to identify alcoholism at a younger age. Pumper said they started with freshman because of the immediate pressures to drink during college.

"We wanted to see if at that young age we could find dependent users," she said. "The younger we can identify them the better."

Researchers assessed 338 students from the University of Washington and University of Wisconsin for alcohol dependence during the summer after their freshman year. Participants took the alcohol use disorders identification test, a screening tool used by clinics across the country, and 22 were found to be dependent on alcohol. Staff then reviewed the Facebook profiles of the alcohol-dependent students.

At the beginning of the study, only a third of those students had referenced alcohol on their profile pages. Only one person had discussed problematic drinking, such as drinking and driving, drinking to relax or drinking alone. A year later, all but three of the participants had mentions of alcohol on their page, and more than half discussed problematic drinking.

"If we could help people discover their dependence issues by using clues from Facebook, maybe we can help them sooner acknowledge that they may have a problem," Pumper said.

Pumper hopes sites like Facebook might be used as tools for intervention with alcoholics. She suggested ads featuring healthy drinking tips could appear on profiles that mention alcohol, or advisors on college campuses could monitor Facebook pages for warning signs of alcohol dependence.

"College students are hard to reach, so we should use tools like Facebook to try to help them," she said. 

Pumped said anyone monitoring a Facebook profile should be honest about it, so students don’t feel like their privacy is being invaded. In the Childrens’ study, she said participants knew researchers would be looking at their profiles but that did not stop them from referencing alcohol online.

While Facebook profiles are sometimes criticized for providing an inaccurate portrayal of life, Pumper said she still believes social media can be used to determine if someone has a drinking problem.

"These profiles are not separate from your life, they're just another layer," Pumper said. "If someone is dependent, it is likely references to alcohol will show up on their profiles."

Still, Pumper said further research should be done to determine who is most likely to disclose honest information on social media. She suggested a study be done to analyze whether alcoholics are more likely than the general population to disclose their behavior on sites like Facebook.

Inga Manskopf, a substance abuse prevention specialist at Seattle Children's Hospital, believes parents should be watching their children's Facebook pages at even younger ages for clues suggesting alcohol use.

"If they 'like' Budweiser or other alcohol products that’s a good indicator that they're using or intend to use," Manskopf said.

One year into the four-year study, Pumper said the most valuable lesson researchers have learned so far is how young alcoholism can begin.

"Dependence can be defined as young as freshman year," Pumper said. "Drinking dependency is a problem in the college population and we should acknowledge that."