College students who post references to getting drunk, blacking out, or other aspects of dangerous drinking on social networking sites are more likely to have clinically significant alcohol problems than those who don’t, says a study published online this week in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Washington, Seattle, divided the public Facebook profiles of more than 300 undergraduate students into three categories: those that had no alcohol references; those that had alcohol references but no references to intoxication or problem drinking; and those that included references to "being drunk," "getting wasted," or other problem drinking behaviors. Researchers also asked the students to complete an online version of the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT), a standard screening tool that clinicians use to measure problems with alcohol.
"We found that underage college students who referenced dangerous drinking habits, such as intoxication or blacking out, were more likely to have AUDIT scores that indicate problem drinking or alcohol-related injury," Megan A. Moreno, M.D., assistant professor of adolescent medicine at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health, stated in a press release on the study findings. An AUDIT score of 8 or higher indicates an individual is at risk for problem drinking. The three groups in the study had average AUDIT scores of 4.7, 6.7, and 9.5, respectively.
According to David McDowell, M.D., assistant professor of psychiatry at Mount Sinai Medical Center and an addiction specialist in private practice in New York City,
In a world where people are increasingly living their lives virtually, the best information you can get about someone may be through their Facebook profile, posts and pictures. Patients may say they’re not alcoholics but they’re holding drinks in all their pictures or they keep referring to certain brands of vodka. Facebook and other social media present a potential opportunity for parents, educators and responsible adults to see what is going on in a child’s life.
Will this study, which feels a little like “big brother watching” have a chilling effect on what people post? McDowell doesn’t think so.
People who are in danger and out of control are broadcasting their behavior anyway. What’s striking is that our reaction to Facebook is often that we need to warn people that what they post could affect their job prospects 20 years from now, and to a certain extent those concerns are valid. However, from the perspective of a healthcare professional, you’re also often seeing a more accurate depiction of the person than what they choose to tell you.
Bottom line: While Facebook can be a wonderful way to engage with friends and family, it turns out that social media can also be a useful tool in identifying people at risk for all sorts of problems, especially young people for whom virtual connections have often replaced physical communities. But proceed with caution. One drink reference does not necessarily an alcoholic make. Before jumping to any conclusions, it’s best to have a conversation and consult a healthcare professional if you do suspect a problem.