How People in Recovery Are Using Instagram to Stay Sober

By May Wilkerson 08/18/15

A wealth of sober-related hashtags have cropped up on the popular social media site.

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Social media can be tricky territory for sober people, with Facebook event invites and boozy Instagram pictures often leaving non-drinkers with a feeling of FOMO. But the Internet can also provide useful tools for people in recovery to connect and seek support.

A new study from examined the ways sober people use the popular photo-sharing app, Instagram. Researchers tracked nine recovery-related hashtags—like #sober, #soberlife, and #12steps—in over 79,000 posts and mapped their locations to see how, and where, sober people are using the app.

They found that #soberlife was the most common recovery-related hashtag, with 32,707 mentions, followed by #sobriety, which was used 19,033 times. Many users mentioned recovery programs like #narcoticsanonymous (1,638 mentions) and #alcoholicsanonymous (1,272 mentions).

They also mapped users’ locations to find out which states have the most active sober Instagram users. Interestingly, Utah was way in the lead with 144.4 posts per capita, followed by California with 70.8. Both stood far ahead of the other states, which ranged from 2.0 to 34.4 posts per capita.

Researchers noted that these patterns don’t necessarily correlate with reported rates of substance use. Utah, with the most sober posts, also has one of the lowest national rates of illicit drug use among teens and adults, whereas California shows relatively high levels of substance use. Montana had a low number of recovery posts, despite showing relatively high substance use.

Why would states with fewer substance users show a more active social media presence by people in recovery? The unanswered questions highlight the fact that the territory of studying recovery and social media is still new.

"In terms of science, we're at the very beginning of it," said Dr. Warren Bickel, director of the Addiction Recovery Research Center at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute. "One of the amazing things about the field of addiction is that we don't rigorously study people in recovery ... and we can learn a lot from them."

Researchers believe social media is becoming an increasingly useful tool for people in recovery. Instagram is particularly beneficial because it is allows users stay relatively anonymous, compared to sites like Facebook, giving people a platform to share their experiences away from the eyes of co-workers or family members.

Other social networking sites, like Sober GridClean Fun Network, and the dating site Sober, have been popping up and are geared specifically towards people in recovery.

"People on the Web tend to seek out people like themselves," said Bickel. If they're "still interested in chasing their addiction, they're going to find people like that. But if they're interested in changing, they're going to find people like that as well."

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May Wilkerson is a writer, comic and Managing Editor @someecards. Co-host of the podcast Crazy; In Bed w/alyssalimp. She is also the top Google result for "insufferable lunatic." Follow this insufferable lunatic on Twitter.