UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health: Study shows relationship between Facebook posts and binge drinking

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MADISON- A collaborative research study between the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health and the University of Washington shows that students who posted more on social media about drinking before college actually did more binge drinking in their freshman year. The results are published in the Bulletin of Science, Technology and Society.

“Little is known about the relationship between posting content on Facebook and future behavior,” said graduate student researcher Jon D’Angelo. “The purpose of the study was to understand the role that one’s own Facebook alcohol posts play in predicting binge drinking during the first year of college.”

D’Angelo said two of the most interesting findings are that binge drinking by college freshmen is not always planned and Facebook could be a useful tool to identify problematic behaviors.

Three-hundred-thirty-eight (338) incoming college freshmen were recruited during the summer before college by the University of Wisconsin and the University of Washington. Three-hundred-twelve (312) completed all the requirements of the study. All participants were between 18 and 19 years old. Fifty-seven percent were females and seventy-five percent were white. The data were collected between May 2011 and September 2012.

All study participants were interviewed by phone at the time of college enrollment and then at the end of their freshman year. Researchers evaluated three months of Facebook posts for each participant in the time period just before entering college. Binge drinking behaviors were assessed at the end of the study period which was after completion of the first year of college. Binge drinking was defined as four or more drinks for women and five or more drinks for men during a single day. D’Angelo’s research team compared the Facebook posts with actual self-reported binge-drinking episodes. The researchers found that Facebook is a better predictor of future behavior than they expected.

“Alcohol posts that students make before entering their freshman year directly predict binge drinking behaviors during college,” said D’Angelo. “We thought the posts would signal intention to binge drink, with intention indicating a general sense of readiness to drink.”

Conversely, students who did not post alcohol-related messages were less likely to binge drink.

D’Angelo said it is likely that for many students, binge drinking happens spontaneously and in the moment rather than being planned. The bottom line is that posts on Facebook are powerful.

“What you post about yourself online matters—what you post may be who you become,” said D’Angelo.