Could monitoring Facebook impact drinking in college?

A new study published in Archives of Pediatric & Adolescent Medicine suggests that the majority of college students who post on Facebook about drunkenness and dangerous drinking habits are also at a higher risk for alcohol abuse and dependence.

The message seems fairly obvious, but the real interesting takeaway of the study is the researchers’ suggestions about how that information could be used.

Based on their findings, researchers suggests that parents and school officials might want to use Facebook to identify students that may be at risk for problem drinking or could benefit from screening or intervention. They also suggest the possibility of using targeted messaging about alcohol safety, which could automatically show up on the Facebook profiles of students who often post publicly about drinking. (Facebook already uses targeted ads based on a person’s profile; this would be a public service and educational extension of that practice.)

Researchers pointed out that this type of monitoring could raise ethical and privacy questions, but also made note that the data collected in their study was done using public profiles. They weren’t reading diaries or tapping phone calls; all the information they gathered was readily available online, on the largest public forum in the world.

If you’re a parent to a teenager or college student, it’s possible you’ve grappled with this issue before: Is your child’s privacy more important than his safety?

Drinking tends to effect everyone on colleges campuses; not just drinkers

This becomes an especially hard question when it comes to drinking in college because the stakes are so high. Alcohol use is a major cause of morbidity and mortality among US college students; about half of students who use alcohol report injuries directly related to drinking and as many as 1700 college students die every year because of an alcohol related injury.

For an expert’s perspective, I spoke with John R. Knight, MD, director of Children’s Hospital Boston’s Center for Adolescent Substance Abuse Research(CeASAR), and father of two teenage/young adult children.

How serious of a problem is underage drinking on college campuses?

JK: It’s a very serious problem. There are far too many deaths, sexual assaults and injuries attributed to alcohol use among students every year at colleges. Then there are the secondary effects, where students who aren’t drinking are still impacted by college binge drinking, whether it’s being kept up all night by loud parties or having to deal with bathrooms and dorm hallways that are covered in vomit. It’s a horrific problem on campuses and it effects virtual every member of the student body, drinkers or not.

How accurate do you think this type of data collection is?

JK: I’m no Facebook expert, but I don’t think there’s a lot of incentive for people to lie about that kind of behavior online, especially in extreme cases where people are passing out or getting arrested.

There’s no way to tell if these photos and status updates are exaggerated, and in some case they may be, but if a student is posting pictures of herself passed out at a party on her Facebook page, it’s not outrageous to assume this isn’t the first time she’s been in that position.

In your opinion, what (if any) are the ethical problems with this kind of data collection?

JK: There are strict guidelines you need to follow when using human subjects in research, even when following the Common Rule. Public behavior is open to research, but there are caveats: For instance, by examining Facebook profiles,  this study’s researchers aren’t just studying ‘Research Subject 345-B’ they’re studying Jim Smith, a 20 year old from Indiana. To go forward with this kind of data collection I think researchers would need to be very careful to follow required guidelines that protect anonymity.

In addition to respecting privacy, there’s also a safety concern. If as a researcher you encounter behaviors that you deem unsafe, what are your obligations to reach out that person and offer them help? In the past when doing research on young drinkers, if I encountered a kid who was drinking so much he could be doing permanent damage to himself, I reached out to him, his parents and his doctors, because safety was more important than data collection.

Do you think parents could benefit from this type of Facebook “analysis?”

John Knight, MD

JK: Probably not in most cases. For instance, I have a 16-year-old daughter with a Facebook page, but I can’t see anything on it because she won’t “friend” me. I know that I’m not alone there, so I don’t really think this is a viable option for a majority of parents of teenagers.

Of course there are ways to get around that block, but to do so you’ve got to do some real snooping, and unless your child has given you real reason to suspect they’re involved in dangerous behavior, I wouldn’t recommend spying on them.

However, if you believe your child is in danger it’s your duty as a parent to do what ever you can to help them. As pediatrician and father, my stance is you should trust your kids and respect their privacy unless they give you reason not to. Privacy is a respected privilege in my house, but not necessarily a God given right. If my child were suspended from school, or arrested on drug or drunk driving charges, I would keep a strict and watchful eye on them at all times. I’d be upfront and direct with them, For example, I would tell them that I was going to search their room, cell phone, or computer, and why. I know that they would protest, yell, beg, and cry, but I would still follow through and do it. At the end of the day a child’s safety is far more important than their privacy.

Aside from identifying problem drinkers, the researchers said this style of data collection could be used to send targeted alcohol safety/education/counseling messaging to student pages where drinking is a common theme. Do you think that kind of message will help?

JK: Sadly I think that’s too little too late. There are real ways to offer people help if they’re in trouble and I don’t think Facebook ads are going to have a real impact. Helping someone overcome a problem with drugs or alcohol requires a personal touch from caring individuals and I just don’t think targeted messaging on Facebook will connect with the people who need it.

What preemptive things can parents of younger teens do to hopefully help them avoid having to resort to Facebook snooping in the future?

JK: Parents need to start talking about substance abuse when their kids are young; I suggest starting when they’re around 9. Keep it age appropriate and nonjudgmental, but that’s a good time to begin the conversation. Ask simple questions like: Does anyone in your school smoke cigarettes? Have any of your friends tried drinking beer? By broaching the subject early, you reinforce the idea of how dangerous these things can be. End the conversation by simply saying, “I hope you’ll stay away from those things, because they can hurt your body, especially your brain, which is still growing and developing.

As kids get older parents need to check in more often. My rule of thumb is if you’re kids aren’t complaining about how often you bring up the topic, you might not be doing enough. Unfortunately there is never a lack of tragic drug and alcohol related stories in the media, and parents should bring them to their kids’ attention. I think many parents don’t realize the extent of the influence they have over their kids. Teenagers might not always act like it, but they listen and care about your opinion. Use that influence to help keep them safe. Choose times and places where your teens have to talk with you, like car rides. My personal favorite was the ski lift. I had 6-7 minutes to gently probe my teenage son, and he had to either talk with me or jump. He never did jump.