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Does Facebook Hold Clues to Problem Drinking?

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Updated: 3/29/2013 3:20 pm

Oct. 3, 2011 -- Those casual comments on Facebook, MySpace, and other social media sites can tell a lot about a person. Now, researchers have found a link between online drinking comments and problem drinking in college students.

The researchers evaluated comments, photos, and other publicly accessible information on the Facebook pages of 224 college men and women. They also gave them a standard test to evaluate alcohol problems.

"College students who referenced either intoxication or problem drinking on their Facebook page were four times more likely to score in that problem drinking category on the test compared to those who didn't reference it," says researcher Megan Moreno, MD, MPH, assistant professor of pediatrics, University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Some alcohol references were also linked with a higher risk of injury, she found.

Moreno is not suggesting parents or others spy on a college student's social media page. But she is suggesting that classmates, relatives, and people in authority, such as resident dormitory advisors, talk to a college student if they notice many online comments about drinking.

The study is published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine.

Facebook Comments and Problem Drinking

The researchers first looked at one year's worth of Facebook content of students who agreed to participate. The average age of the students was nearly 19.

The researchers found 64% had no alcohol use references. About 20% had alcohol use references and 16% had intoxication or problem drinking references.

The alcohol use comments, Moreno says, were typically things like "Hey, I had a couple of beers" or "Let's play beer pong tonight."

Many experts believe a certain amount of alcohol use is normal for college students, Moreno tells WebMD.

However, about half of students who use alcohol report alcohol-related harms, she says. And up to 1,700 college student deaths each year are alcohol-related.

Another category of comments, she says, were those that talked not simply about use but about drunkenness or other problem drinking. Those comments included such information as: "I have been hung over for two days" or not remembering details after getting drunk.

Identifying Alcohol Problems

Two hundred and sixteen of the students took the test known as AUDIT (Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test).

Their scores ranged from zero to 26. The average was 5.8. A score of 8 or higher is the cutoff for at-risk problem drinking. In all, 35.4% of the students scored in the at-risk category.

When Moreno compared the Facebook content and the scores, she found those whose comments and photos reflected drunkenness most likely to score in the at-risk category, with:

  • 58.3% of those whose online content reflected intoxication or problem drinking at risk.
  • 37.8% of those whose online content talked about alcohol use, but not intoxication, at risk.
  • 22.6% of those who didn't mention alcohol at risk.

Those who talked about intoxication were more than twice as likely as those who talked about alcohol use -- but not intoxication -- to have an alcohol-related injury in the past year. They were six times as likely to have an alcohol-related injury as those who had no alcohol references.

Second Opinion

The findings make sense to W. Keith Campbell, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Georgia. He has researched social networking and narcissism, a self-centeredness with a need for admiration. He reviewed the new study findings for WebMD.

In his research, he has found that people who display narcissism are more likely to post provocative pictures, for instance.

Likewise, he says, the new research is finding that using Facebook is ''a reasonable way to gather information about someone that is accurate."

The finding could help those concerned about someone's possible problem drinking take action, Campbell says.

"If you are a parent or a friend of someone and see lots of examples of drinking [posted online], it might be a cue or a clue to go talk to the person," he says. "I would not use this [information] as a diagnostic."

However, it could offer a clue to problem drinking that seems somewhat accurate, he says.

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