College students’ Facebook posts may reveal a risk for alcohol dependence, according to a new study, highlighting both a serious public health issue and concerns about online privacy.
The study, published in October’s “Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine,” examined public Facebook profiles of more than 300 undergraduate students at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and the University of Washington. Researchers divided profiles into three categories: those that did not reference alcohol, referenced alcohol but did not mention getting drunk, and those that talked about drinking to excess. The students then completed a questionnaire used to diagnose problem drinking.
Students whose Facebook statuses and photos contained references to intoxication and excessive drinking were found to be four times more likely to have an alcohol problem than those whose profiles made no mention of drunkenness.
The study’s authors suggest parents and health professionals may use Facebook posts to identify adolescents who may be at risk for alcohol abuse and dependence, but also recognized this raises privacy concerns.
Federal regulations already make it possible for the Social Intelligence Corporation to use Facebook and Twitter postings in employment screenings, while employers, lawyers, and debt collectors already gather information from social media sites. This study raises the possibility that colleges may be next.
The study’s authors suggested potential ways higher learning institutions may make use of their findings without stepping on student privacy. College health centers may link to Facebook or advertise online alcohol screening tests on the social media site, ways to help target students with drinking problems without trolling through Facebook profiles for personal information.
Drinking to excess on college campuses is a true concern, with one in five students admitting to three or more binge drinking episodes in a two-week period, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Campus officials may welcome this research as a potential way to reduce problem drinking and save lives, but they will likely need to balance it with the need for student privacy.