July 24, 2017

study, “College Students’ Drinking and Posting About Alcohol: Forwarding a Model of Motivations, Behaviors, and Consequences,” by researchers at the University of North Carolina and Ohio University, reveals an interesting correlation between drinking alcohol and posting about it on social media. Specifically, the study of 364 college students, which was also published in the Journal of Health Communication, found that those who had an “alcohol identity” were more likely to post about their alcohol consumption on social media.

The students participated in an online survey. Each participant was over the age of 18, was active on at least one social media site and had at least one alcoholic drink in the past month. The students were asked a variety of questions about consumption habits — and any related issues, social media habits and correlations between drinking and posting.

Ironically, posting on social media was a greater predictor that students would have alcohol-related problems than actually drinking alcohol. Dr. Charee Thompson, one of the co-authors and an assistant professor of communication studies at Ohio University, wrote, “This might be because posting about alcohol use strengthens a student’s ties to a drinking culture, which encourages more drinking, which could lead to problems.”

Another one of the study’s co-authors, Lynsey Romo, an assistant professor of communication at North Carolina State, made three particularly interesting points:

  1. "The study also indicates that students who are at risk of having drinking problems can be identified through SNSs (social networking sites)."
  2. "We're hopeful that these findings can aid policymakers in developing interventions to target the most at-risk populations -- particularly students with strong alcohol identities, and social media may help identify those students.”
  3. “For example, colleges could train student leaders and others in administrative positions to scan SNSs for text and photos that may indicate alcohol problems."

Alcohol use is clearly a problem on college campuses. The sobering statistics from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reveal that each year:

  • 1,825 college students die from alcohol-related motor vehicle crashes and other alcohol-fueled injuries.
  • 696,000 college students are assaulted by a fellow student who has been drinking.
  • 97,000 college students report an alcohol-related date rape or other type of sexual assault.
  • 25 percent of college students report academic problems such as skipping class, performing poorly in class or on tests or papers and receiving low grades.
  • 20 percent of college students could be classified as having an Alcohol Use Disorder.

The symptoms of an Alcohol Use Disorder include the inability to stop drinking or reduce alcohol consumption, forgoing other activities to drink, having memory blackouts, engaging in risky activities as a result of drinking, needing to drink more to obtain the desired effect and experiencing withdrawal symptoms.

However, while alcohol use – and misuse – among college students is problematic, the idea of student leaders and college administrators trying to identify at-risk students by scanning social media sites for alcohol-related texts and photos, is just as troubling.

First Do No Harm

Whether intentional or not, this type of behavior has the potential to cause harm to targeted students. Danielle Keenan-Miller, Ph.D., director of the UCLA Psychology Clinic and an adjunct assistant professor in the UCLA Department of Psychology, said, “The ethics code for the American Psychological Association has a number of guiding, or aspirational, principles that are meant to guide the behaviors of psychologists, several of which seem related to this case.”

According to Keenan-Miller, “First, psychologists strive for beneficence and non-maleficence, which means that we aim to benefit those with whom we work and not do harm, and clearly, there is a risk for harm to students if colleges use data about students’ social network postings in a way that is stigmatizing, jeopardizes their student status, or creates risk of legal harm.”

She admits that the students who are accurately identified would perhaps benefit from receiving assistance, but concludes, “The study is not an intervention study, so it does not itself show that there is any benefit to students who are identified this way.”

The implications can extend far beyond searching for students to “help.” Some employers already use negative social media posts against job candidates. This includes posts that exhibit, among other things, drunkenness, racism and overt sexuality. Colleges are also using social media to determine admittance and scholarship offers. What happens if employers and colleges resort to identifying applicants as having alcoholic problems because they posted photos that included alcoholic drinks?

Carol A. Prescott, Ph.D., professor of psychology and gerontology at the University of Southern California believes these indicators are probabilistic and not necessarily causal. “You can think about it like how auto insurance companies assign rates to drivers based on age and sex,” Prescott said. “Demographics are statistically associated with how people drive, but it doesn't mean every person in a category (e.g., males under 26) is going to be riskier, just that on average there is an association and it is useful for predicting behavior in the aggregate.”

And that, intrinsically, could be problematic. According to Keenan-Miller, “There is an ethical difference between identifying through research that some kind of marker can be used to predict an adverse outcome, and a policy that says that we should then deploy using that marker in the general population.”

For example, she says that genetic markers can help predict who is at an increased risk of developing a particular health condition. Genetic markers have been used to predict Alzheimer’s, postpartum depression, the fatality of prostate cancer, and melanoma survival rates. “However, employers and schools can’t force their employees or students to get genetic tests and then put them under various kinds of medical treatments to try to keep them healthy,” Keenan-Miller said.

Taking any type of action based on social media posts is extremely troubling to Robin Schooling, a Baton Rouge-based HR executive and strategist. “College students are, technically, ‘adults,’ and therefore, have the freedom to broadcast their online persons and identities,” Schooling said.

While some posts may not reflect the best judgement, Schooling believes it’s important for schools and employers to put these unfortunate selfies or comments in perspective. “This is merely one aspect of a young adult’s interests and capabilities,” Schooling said, warning against jumping to conclusions. “The student council president may be at a party standing next to a keg, but that doesn’t mean she has a drinking problem.”

There are other issues, which could include a predisposition against those who drink. “There is a real concern of bias setting in when individuals, acting on behalf of a school or employer, make judgments based on pictures or posts viewed in isolation,” Schooling said.

“The HR professional conducting a pre-job offer media scan may be a teetotaler and adamantly opposed to the consumption of alcohol, which is fine if that’s her choice; however, an ingrained human bias to anyone who drinks alcohol should not factor into a determination of whether a candidate has the necessary knowledge, skills and abilities to perform a job.”

Informed Consent Issue

The lack of informed consent is another potential problem. James Amirkhan is a psychology professor at California State University Long Beach, and chair of CSULB’s Institutional Review Board, which examines the ethics of human subject research. “If a researcher proposed to examine social media sites and diagnose the posters, we would have some ethical concerns,” Amirkhan said. “First of all, we would insist that the possible subjects of this project have provided informed consent — that is, we would insist that the students know that their postings are being scrutinized for the purpose of identifying possible substance abuse problems.” Are colleges prepared (and willing) to do this if they decide to scan the social media sites of their students?

Privacy Concerns

Another issue is how the posts would be accessed and whether this access would constitute an invasion of privacy. “If the privacy setting was the general public setting, this would be less of a concern than if it were set to a group of friends — since these searches would represent, in essence, an invasion of privacy,” Amirkhan said. And, he questions how the information would be used. “If the intent was to send a list of alcohol treatment resources to the poster alone, this would be less of a concern than providing the information to the university administration or even the university counseling center without the poster’s consent.” Additionally, he believes a risks/rewards assessment must be conducted. “You would need to weigh the likelihood that a poster is actually in trouble and would benefit from an intervention versus the possible damage (to reputation or to one’s feelings and self-esteem) that this might incur.”

Schooling agrees that privacy concerns could pose another level of problems. “The viewing of ‘public’ content on channels such as Instagram or Twitter is one thing; scanning and requesting access to text messages, which are intended as private messages, takes us down a slippery slope towards Big Brother monitoring what private citizens do in their own time.”

Also, who is assuring the privacy of this information? Just last year, a university in the UK was investigated for leaking personal student information, including mental health and medical details. The information was erroneously uploaded to the school’s website, and discovered by a student conducting a Google search. Several years ago, Stanford Hospital accidentally uploaded the medical records of 20,000 patients to Student of Fortune, a website that provides paid homework tutorials to college students. In addition to these errors, there’s the possibility that students (and possibly, staff) charged with “searching” for individuals with alcohol problems might willfully share this information with others.

The Bottom Line

I don't drink, but I have many friends who do, and some of them may post a photo of their alcoholic beverage or make a comment about it. To my knowledge — although I could be wrong — none of these particular individuals have problems with alcohol.

It should also be noted that my alcoholic-drink-posting-friends also tend to post photos of their meal, whether they ate at a restaurant or grilled out in the backyard. But, does this mean they have some sort of eating disorder since they’re frequently posting about their food?

These same individuals also post about how may miles they ran, or how many steps they took on a particular day and some even post the information on their sleep trackers to inform everyone that they went to sleep or woke up on time. So, what does this reveal about these people?  Do they have exercise or sleep addictions?

They might. Perhaps these are all warning signs of existing or potential problems. But it’s possible that they might just have a social media addiction. However, I couldn’t say conclusively, because I’m wary of diagnoses based on social media posts.

Terri Williams 
writes for a variety of clients including USA Today, Yahoo, U.S. News & World Report, The Houston Chronicle, Investopedia, and Robert Half. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Follow her on Twitter @Territoryone.