Drunk on Facebook? A red flag

College students' Facebook pages might hold clues to which of them are at risk for alcohol dependence and abuse, according to a new study.

Researchers found that students who had pictures or posts about getting drunk or blacking out were more likely to be at risk of drinking problems, based on a screening test.

That was not necessarily the case for students who mentioned alcohol or drinking on their pages, but not in a way that showed that they drank too much or in unhealthy situations.

It's possible that Facebook pages could help schools find out who needs to be assessed for alcohol-related problems – although privacy and ethical concerns might make that complicated, researchers said.

The question is whether "what's being found on these sites... is actually predictive of clinical conditions," said Dr James Niels Rosenquist, a social media researcher and psychiatrist from Massachusetts General Hospital who wasn't involved in the new study.

The findings suggest that messages on Facebook sites do seem to be linked to what happens in the "real world", he said.

Facebook survey

Dr Megan Moreno from the University of Wisconsin-Madison led a team of researchers from her university and the University of Washington in Seattle who surveyed the Facebook pages, including photos and posts, of 224 under grads with publicly-available profiles.

About two-thirds of those students had no references to alcohol or drinking on their pages. The rest of the pages mentioned or had pictures of social, non-problematic drinking or more serious and risky alcohol use, including riding in a car while drunk or getting in trouble related to drinking.

The researchers brought all the students in for a 10-question screening test, used to determine who is at risk for problem drinking. That test assesses the frequency of drinking and binge drinking as well as negative consequences from alcohol use.

Close to six in ten of the students whose Facebook pages had references to drunkenness and other dangerous drinking scored above the cutoff showing a risk for alcohol abuse and dependence, as well as other drinking-related problems. 

Peer leaders to use Facebook

That compared to 38%of students who had more minor references to alcohol and 23% of those who didn't mention alcohol or drinking at all, according to findings published in the Archives of Paediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.

In addition, close to one in five Facebook-implicated risky drinkers said they had an alcohol-related injury in the previous year.

Moreno and her colleagues proposed that peer leaders such as residential assistants could be trained to use Facebook to see who is at risk for problem drinking, and refer those students to get screening.

Or, parents and administrators could talk to a school's counsellors if they were worried about alcohol-related content on a student's page. "You might have someone who, if they write in a Facebook posting about being drunk... that might be a red flag," Rosenquist said.

People's privacy

But, he added, with social media "you get very small snapshots into people's lives," so perusing Facebook pages alone might not be enough to see who needs to be screened for alcohol problems.

And there are other concerns as well, he said, including how appropriate it is to go scouting on students' pages for certain information.

Moreno said that a college RA already has a connection with students and is there to look out for them -- and this study is showing that "there is some legitimacy in approaching students that you're worried about," including if that worry is coming from Facebook posts.

But, she added, "Paying attention to people's privacy concerns is really big." Moreno suggested that universities could have links to the health centre or to online screening tests show up as Facebook advertisements for students who use terms such as "blacked out" on their pages.

"With the targeted messaging, there's not that (feeling) that someone you don't know is creeping on your profile," she said.

(Reuters Health, Genevra Pittman, September 2011)

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