College students' Facebook pages may hold clues as to which of them are at risk for alcohol dependence and abuse, according to a U.S. study.
Researchers led by Megan Moreno from the University of Wisconsin-Madison 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 they drank too much or in unhealthy situations.
"Results suggest that clinical criteria for problem drinking can be applied to Facebook alcohol references," Ms. Moreno and her colleagues wrote in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.
They added that it was 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.
The question is whether "what's being found on these sites... is actually predictive of clinical conditions," said James Rosenquist, a social media researcher and psychiatrist from Massachusetts General Hospital who wasn't involved in the study.
But he told Reuters Health that the findings suggest that messages on Facebook sites do seem to be linked to what happens in "the real world."
Ms. Moreno 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 undergrads 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.
That compared to 38 per cent of students who had more minor references to alcohol and 23 per cent of those who didn't mention alcohol or drinking at all.
In addition, close to one in five Facebook-implicated risky drinkers said they had an alcohol-related injury in the previous year.
Ms. Moreno and her teams 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 counselors 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," Mr. Rosenquist said.
But he added that 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.
There are other concerns too, including how appropriate it is to go scouting on students' pages for certain information.
Ms. Moreno agreed that privacy concerns were an issue but said 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.