MONDAY, Oct. 3, 2011 (HealthDay News) -- Facebook and other online social networking sites might be new weapons in the fight against underage drinking and alcohol abuse, a new study shows.
Researchers say verbal and visual cues on underage college students' Facebook profile pages can highlight their alcohol consumption and point out who's at most risk for abuse.
"Our job is to distinguish between drinking in a relatively safe environment, when it's not really a problem, from drinking behaviors that could lead to negative outcomes," explained study lead author Dr. Megan A. Moreno, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
"So we took the same sort of cues -- key words or indications that we already use when administering standard alcohol-risk screening questionnaires in a clinical setting -- and applied them to publicly available profiles on Facebook," Moreno noted. "We found that students whose Facebook status reports and photos contain these key references to intoxication and problem drinking are four times as likely as those whose profiles do not to actually have a drinking problem."
Moreno and her colleagues reported their findings in the Oct. 3 online edition of Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. The study was funded in part by the U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the U.S. National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
According to the study authors, alcohol abuse is a major problem across the nation's campuses. Upwards of 1,700 college students die every year in an alcohol-related incident, while about half of students who drink say they've experienced some form of alcohol-related harm. Underage students, in particular, face a higher risk for experiencing alcohol-related injuries.
However, it's tough to pinpoint those students most at risk, the researchers said. That's because only about 12 percent of college students actually take part in widely accepted alcohol screening efforts, such as the highly effective 10-question Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT).
On the other hand, 94 to 98 percent of campus kids have some type of social media profile, and the vast majority log on to them on a daily basis. So Moreno's team wondered if they might take advantage of social networking to spot kids at risk.
Between 2009 and 2010, the researchers looked at online profiles for the most popular social networking site for college students, Facebook. They first reviewed and "coded" the Facebook profiles of 307 students between the ages of 18 and 20 who were attending one of two state universities.
Most of the profiles (nearly two-thirds) were found to have no alcohol-related references. Nearly one-fifth did contain alcohol references, but the indicators were deemed to be innocuous and did not raise alarm bells.
By contrast, just over 16 percent of the profiles included references to drunkenness or other indicators that the person may be heading towards problem drinking.
All of the 307 students were eventually contacted, and 224 of them subsequently completed a standard AUDIT screening questionnaire.
The result: just over 58 percent of underage college kids whose profiles raised problem drinking concerns were, in fact, at risk for having such a problem, as confirmed by the AUDIT tool.
And nearly 38 percent of those whose profiles referenced alcohol in what had been thought to be a "harmless" manner were also found to be at risk for alcohol issues. The same was true for nearly 23 percent of those who included no references to alcohol whatsoever in their Facebook postings.
"So clearly just because there were no such displays on Facebook doesn't mean that the student wasn't drinking," Moreno acknowledged.
Privacy settings on Facebook profile pages are somewhat more stringent now than when the study was conducted, Moreno noted. "But, searching the Facebook landscape can still be useful," she said. "Because my main hope is that this study would start a conversation, empowering people who are actually friends and peers with one another on these sorts of sites to take note of what people say about themselves, and to check in on their friends when they see something along these lines that concerns them," Moreno added.
"The point is that I think we have this idea that the Internet is still a place where we put up all sorts of nonsense that isn't real, and where we try to become something other than ourselves," Moreno said. "But actually we need to take it a little more seriously, because actually a lot of people use social media sites to express their true identity. And therefore these postings could be a helpful way for friends and family to spot drinking problems, and then maybe start some communication when they do."
Dr. Adam Bisaga is associate professor of psychiatry at Columbia University in New York City and an addiction psychiatrist at the New York State Psychiatric Institute. He described the Facebook approach to curbing alcohol abuse among the young as "interesting," but cautioned that it will not become a substitute for more rigorous screening techniques.
"I wouldn't think this approach, whether conducted anonymously or with consent, is more effective than engaging with people directly," Bisaga said. "It's certainly an interesting method. But without asking the specific questions you need to ask of people, you might end up picking up misleading indicators. Which is to say, that this procedure could raise more practical problems than benefits," he noted.
"But," Bisaga added, "if done very carefully, and as an additional screening source on top of the accepted ways of collecting information about behavior, this could be useful."
There's more on the problem of drinking on U.S. college campuses at the U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.