You know that guy—he's your one Facebook friend who always has the craziest photos from his most recent bout of binge drinking, or whose status almost always indicates that he's jonesing for a beer. But did you know that researchers have found that alcohol abuse can actually be tracked and potentially prevented through social networking media?
For years, doctors and therapists have used proven speech-screening techniques with patients in clinical settings; by tracking patients' usage of certain key words and expressions in interviews, they are able to gauge the likelihood that a given subject might have an alcohol addiction. Using these same key words as indicators, researchers at the University of Wisconsin recently studied college students' Facebook profiles in an effort to algorithmically detect signs of alcohol abuse. Between 2009 and 2010, they examined the public Facebook profiles of students at the state university aged 18 to 20, coding 307 profiles in total. One-fifth of the profiles contained key words regarding alcohol generally, and sixteen percent contained words and phrases that indicated drunkenness and showed that the person was potentially headed towards addiction. All 307 students were later contacted, and 224 completed the standard "AUDIT," or Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test. The results were dramatic—students whose profiles frequently displayed the key words were four times more likely to have an alcohol problem than those whose profiles did not.
With over 1,700 alcohol-related deaths occurring yearly on college campuses and underage students at far higher risk of alcohol-related injury than the general population, this kind of research has become increasingly crucial. Alcohol abuse prevention has proven a tricky business, however, since only about twelve percent of college students agree to participate in annual standard alcohol screening tests. In light of this difficulty, the University of Wisconsin research team noted that 94 to 98 percent of campus students used some form of social networking website, and that most checked their profiles daily. Facebook has since instituted tighter privacy settings making research of this kind more difficult, but the true value of the study's findings may be their indication to friends and family members of students that looking to social media can help them keep track of kids who are at risk for developing alcohol problems. One commenter on the study, an associate professor at New York's Columbia University, noted that the findings were interesting, but couldn't substitute for more in-depth screenings. This makes good sense, but on the same note, for friends and family of students social media may still prove an invaluable tool for making sure that their loved ones are steering clear of unhealthy relations with illegal substances. Far too many people end up in drug rehabs unnecessarily because their alcohol abuse habits have continued for too long.
Without appropriate alcohol abuse solutions, many people suffer unnecessarily. Perhaps this is a step in the right direction.