Can A Facebook Status Update Reveal A Person's Substance Use?

By Victoria Kim 06/01/17

Data mining is giving researchers insight into the substance use habits of Facebook users.

Woman looking at the login screen of a Facebook app on her cell phone.

How much can a status update reveal about a person’s drug use? Apparently, a lot. 

A new technique developed by a research team at the Addiction Recovery Research Center (ARRC) in Roanoke, Virginia, was able to correlate certain behaviors on Facebook with a higher likelihood of drug or alcohol use, reports MIT Technology Review

“Our best models achieved 86% for predicting tobacco use, 81% for alcohol use and 84% for drug use, all of which significantly outperformed existing methods,” wrote the team from the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute.

“Swear words such as ‘fuck’ and ‘shit,’ sexual words such as ‘horny’ and ‘sex,’ words related to biological process such as ‘blood’ and ‘pain’ are positively correlated with all three types of substance use disorder,” they wrote. 

The team found a positive correlation between drug use and the use of words like “hate” and “kill” that express anger, and words related to health like “clinic” and “pill.”

The research team analyzed data on status updates and the “likes” of millions of Facebook users. They also collected data from a popular Facebook app called myPersonality, a series of psychometric tests that more than 4 million people chose to participate in, according to Cambridge University. 

One test gauged how much and how often Facebook users used alcohol, tobacco, or other substances. Over 13,000 users responded, with a mean age of 23 years old.

Using this data, the ARRC team looked at how the data sets overlapped, and say they were able to gain insight into people’s patterns of use and risk factors for drug use. 

“A preference for movies such as V for Vendetta and Boondock Saints is positively correlated with alcohol use, while having a hobby, liking cartoons and shows favored by kids or liking movies and brands favored by girls are negatively correlated with drug, alcohol and tobacco use respectively,” said the researchers.

This analysis builds off a growing body of research that the researchers acknowledge has “confirmed a strong association between personal traits and substance use.” 

The researchers cite a 1998 study (Cook et al.) that examined the relationship between alcohol consumption and personality, which found that “alcohol use is correlated positively with sociability and extraversion.” They also cite a 2014 study (Campbell et al.) that found that cigarette smokers have a “significantly higher openness to experience” as well as “lower conscientiousness.” 

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr