Oct. 3, 2011 -- College students who post the details of their drunken nights on Facebook can end up with a few problems on their hands – embarrassment, regret or explanations to mom and dad. But a new study from researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison suggests those Facebook postings may also signal that a student is at clinical risk of having a drinking problem.
Dr. Megan Moreno, the study's lead author and a pediatrician, said she often talks with teenage patients and parents who are worried about college students they know who post status updates on Facebook about drinking.
"College is a frequent time that students will drink, and we often see references to alcohol on Facebook," she said. "So we wanted to find if there is a way to separate what might be 'rite of passage' drinking from drinking that shows actual clinical risk."
Moreno and her colleagues analyzed more than 200 Facebook profiles of 18- to 20-year-old college students at the University of Wisconsin and the University of Washington, looking for pictures, status updates and comments that referred to drinking alcohol. Then they had those students, both with and without alcohol mentions on their profiles, take the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test, a survey that clinicians use to assess potential problems with alcohol.
They found that students who posted on Facebook about drinking while driving, blacking out, drinking alone or other "problem drinking" behaviors were more likely to be considered "at-risk" for alcoholism. Based on their responses to the clinical survey, the researchers found that 58 percent of them met the clinical definition for at-risk, problem drinking, compared with 38 percent who merely displayed alcohol in pictures or status updates on their profiles.
The study also found that students who posted about problem drinking behaviors were more than six times as likely to report an alcohol-related injury, compared with students who didn't mention alcohol use on Facebook at all.
The study was published online on Monday in Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.
Moreno said that Facebook posts and Twitter hashtags don't always indicate that a student has an alcohol problem. Nearly 23 percent of the students in the study who never mentioned alcohol on Facebook were still considered at-risk based on their responses to the clinical survey. But she said social media activity can be a red flag that some students have a problem. The key is to keep an eye on how a young person talks about alcohol use.
"If someone says they had a great wine night with the girls this weekend, that's not as concerning as someone who says, 'I shouldn't have been driving because I was so wasted,'" Moreno said. "That's someone where it might be time to pull out that screening tool and clinically assess their problems."
Lisa Gualtieri, who researches health and social media at the Tufts University School of Medicine, said tools like Facebook offer a novel approach to assessing health problems in college students, but they also come with a number of ethical quandaries.
"It's very exciting but also perplexing," Gualtieri said. "Where do you draw the lines between helping someone and invading their privacy?"
As posting online becomes an essential part of life for many people, more scientists are looking at what social media can tell them about health habits and trends. Last week, researchers published a study of mood levels measured by analyzing Tweets from around the world. Google analyzed what users searched to track and report flu activity in Google Flu Trends.
But Gualtieri said when it comes to tackling health problems with college students, social media isn't necessarily the best place to start.
"I would personally hesitate to use social media tools to investigate a student's health or emotional problems," Gualtieri said. "It seems like there are a wealth of more traditional ways of detecting problems among students," like class absences or poor grades.
Moreno said the goal of her study wasn't to encourage university officials to stalk students' drinking habits on Facebook. But she said social media tools could be a valuable way to reach students who weren't willing to report their problems with alcohol on their own.
"Most college students are going to balk at being approached by a stranger about their drinking. The most helpful approaches are going to be by someone in that student's trusted circle," Moreno said. "Often that cool aunt or uncle who is the student's Facebook friend, or even other college friends or an RA [Resident Advisor] will be in the best position to help."