Study finds social media use may help identify students at risk of alcohol problems

Students who are at risk of having drinking problems can be identified through social networking sites (SNSs), according to a new study which found that posting about alcohol use is actually a stronger predictor of alcohol problems than having a drink.

“This work underscores the central role that social networking sites, or SNSs, play in helping students coordinate, advertise and facilitate their drinking experiences,” said Lynsey Romo from North Carolina State University in the US. “The study also indicates that students who are at risk of having drinking problems can be identified through SNSs,” said Romo.

Researchers conducted an online survey of 364 undergraduate students. The participants were all over 18, reported having consumed at least one alcoholic drink in the past month, and had an active Facebook, Twitter or Instagram account.

Study participants were asked about their SNS use, alcohol consumption, alcohol problems and their alcohol-related use of SNSs, as well as a series of questions designed to measure their motivations for drinking.

“The strongest predictor of both drinking alcohol and posting about it on SNSs was espousing an alcohol identity – meaning that the individuals considered drinking a part of who they are,” said Charee Thompson from Ohio University.

“And those two behaviours were associated with alcohol problems – such as missing school or work, or getting into fights – because of drinking,” said Thompson. Researchers found that posting about alcohol use on social media was actually a stronger predictor of alcohol problems than alcohol use was.

This means that having a drink was less strongly correlated with alcohol problems than posting about alcohol use was – though clearly students with alcohol problems were drinking alcohol, researchers said.

“This might be because posting about alcohol use strengthens a student’s ties to a drinking culture, which encourages more drinking, which could lead to problems,” said Thompson.

“We are hopeful that these findings can aid policymakers in developing interventions to target the most at-risk populations – particularly students with strong alcohol identities,” said Romo.

“And social media may help identify those students. For example, colleges could train student leaders and others in administrative positions to scan SNSs for text and photos that may indicate alcohol problems,” she said. The findings were published in the Journal of Health Communication:
International Perspectives.