10/03/2011 05:19 EDT | Updated 12/03/2011 05:12 EST

Social media profiles could help ID students at risk of problem drinking: study

CHICAGO - Social media profiles may reveal more personal details than just hometowns and hobbies — they could help identify underage college students at risk for problem drinking, a new study suggests.

Dr. Megan Moreno of the University of Wisconsin — Madison and colleagues explored links between alcohol use and intoxication/problem drinking on Facebook, as well as self-reported problem drinking using the 10-question Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test clinical scale. The AUDIT assesses consumption, dependence and harm or consequences of alcohol use.

While screening tools like AUDIT are available to help identify people with problem drinking, researchers say screening at the population level among college students is challenging since many don't seek health care at student centres. So the study authors write that "one novel approach" to identify college students at risk for problem drinking may be social networking sites.

Researchers included undergrads aged 18 to 20 at two U.S. state universities who have public Facebook profiles in their study, published by Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, one of the JAMA/Archives journals.

Among 307 identified profiles, 224 participants completed the survey. Of the Facebook profiles coded, 19.6 per cent had references to alcohol use while 16.1 per cent displayed references to intoxication or problem drinking.

Among the 216 participants who completed the AUDIT questions, scores ranged from zero to 26. The study found 35.4 per cent of respondents scored eight or higher on the scale, placing them in the category of at-risk problem drinkers.

Researchers also found alcohol references displayed on Facebook were positively associated with being categorized as at risk for problem drinking. The study found 58.3 per cent of intoxication/problem drinking displayers met the criteria for at-risk problem drinking.

AUDIT scores for intoxication/problem drinking displayers was 9.5, compared to 6.7 for alcohol displayers and for 4.7 non-displayers.

What's more, intoxication/problem drinking displayers were more than twice as likely as alcohol displayers and more than six times as likely as non-displayers to report an alcohol-related injury in the past year.

"These study findings can be used for offering evidence-based guidance recommending that students who display references to (intoxication/problem drinking) on Facebook undergo clinical screening for problem alcohol use," the authors conclude.

"Our findings suggest that targeting keywords that relate to (intoxication/problem drinking), rather than to general keywords regarding alcohol, may provide an innovative method to deliver a tailored message to a target population."