NIH Funds Research on Harnessing Social Media to Fight Substance Abuse

The relationship between social media and addiction is a complicated one. There is growing evidence that the use of social media such as Facebook and Twitter can itself be addictive. Research has also found that teenagers are more likely to drink or smoke if they see pictures of their Facebook friends engaging in substance use. However, some researchers believe that social media can also be a powerful tool to improve prevention and treatment of substance use disorders. Recently, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) awarded $11 million to various researchers exploring ways in which social media can be used to spread information and help experts understand prevailing attitudes and trends surrounding substance abuse. Eleven research teams received grants from the NIH to pursue research in this area. The awardees include research teams from UCLA, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Virginia Tech, Washington University, Wright State University, the University of Colorado Boulder, the American Legacy Foundation and the Research Triangle Institute.

Studies Will Explore Intervention, Treatment, Trends

These studies will explore a large number of areas relating to social media and substance abuse. The research will cover topics including using online social networks to aid smoking cessation, using Facebook to recruit parents for teen drug use prevention and analyzing how different levels of engagement in social media affect alcohol and marijuana use among teenagers. One of the two UCLA studies to receive a grant will explore ways to use social media as a platform for low-cost interventions that will reduce prescription drug abuse among patients living with chronic pain. Prescription drug abuse has reached epidemic proportions in the United States and is considered to be one of the biggest healthcare crises in the U.S. The UNC Charlotte team, led by computer science professor Dr. Yong Ge, plans to use social media analysis to gather data about substance abuse patterns. This method is a form of data mining—a subset of computer science that identifies patterns from large sets of data. In this case, the researchers will be using data mining and a healthy knowledge of substance-related slang to find tweets about substance use among the roughly 500 million tweets sent out each day. This technique is an alternative to the traditional method of gathering information about substance use trends through survey responses. The Virginia Tech study, led by psychiatry and behavioral medicine professor Dr. Warren K. Bickel of the Carilion School of Medicine, will explore ways to treat addiction more effectively by employing social media. The team hopes to discover whether social media can be used as an entry point for addiction treatment and also whether social media can be an effective tool to support people in recovery.

Identifying the Myths, Spreading the Truth

There is a tremendous amount of public information available on social media platforms, as well as unprecedented data about everything from long-term to extremely short-term trends. The NIH hopes to use this information to better understand current attitudes and beliefs that teenagers and young adults have about substance use. Once it has achieved a better understanding about myths, attitudes and the very latest trends concerning young people and substance abuse, the NIH and its sub-agencies, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), hope to harness social media as a means of dispelling myths and spreading accurate information about substance abuse.

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