Academics Use ‘Big Data’ of Social Media to Explore Drug Abuse

A critical review written jointly by Dartmouth College, Stanford University, and IBM Research suggests that social media has the potential to reveal important information on prescription drug abuse, including side effects, cravings, emotional states, and risky behaviors.

The critical review examined “huge volumes of data” from eight academic surveys related to social media—including Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram—to determine whether patterns of problematic drug use can be gleaned from people’s behavioral and communications patterns on social media.

Lead author Sunny Jung Kim, PhD, an e-health communication scholar in the biomedical data science and psychiatry departments at Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine, said that studying these patterns could help to not only raise public awareness of substance abuse, but target and counter the negative effects of prescription drug abuse in a smarter way.

“I started this project because there were few studies about why people use social networking sites to share unsolicited, highly personal information about their drug use,” Kim said. “Harnessing social media platforms and data can provide insight into important novel discoveries of collective public health risk behavior, a better understanding of peoples’ struggles with addiction, and their process of recovery.”

With people spending up to two hours every day on social media globally, vast amounts of data about people’s communication habits and activities. Many people who are unable to find or afford help for their addiction seek out peer support groups on platforms like Facebook to share stories about their experiences around prescription drugs.

Co-author Jeffrey Hancock, PhD, director of computational social science at Stanford, said, “Given the importance of this problem for the U.S. population, it’s imperative that we understand how social media is playing a role and how it can be part of the solution.”

In examining the data behind the academic surveys, researchers were able to get granular when it came to measuring and classifying social media use among prescription drug abusers. Sex, age, and socioeconomic status characteristics of social media users, combined with social-psychological characteristics of the language being used, were combined to create certain classifications and find patterns.

Further Study is Needed

Based on their findings, the researchers designed a multi-level framework to help future substance abuse prevention and intervention programs that incorporate social media. Kim said that the findings of this critical review paper are the foundation not only of future drug prevention and intervention programs, but her own study of the relationship between prescription drug abuse and social media.

“Our typology suggests that social media big data and platforms can be a tremendous resource,” Kim said. “I’m now using social media to recruit thousands of people for more research. There’s a screening criteria to undergo, but anecdotally, it’s going really well so far.”

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