Does Someone You Know Have an “Alcohol Identity?”

We've all got That One Friend on Facebook who almost daily seems to find some new context in which to show a picture of an alcoholic drink. Whether it's a shot of him and his buddies at happy hour, hoisting a brew at a backyard barbecue, or even just the label of a whiskey bottle, you have at one point or another muttered, “Geez, what is it with this guy and his booze?”

You're not the only one who has wondered whether these seemingly random pictures were a silent cry for help. A team of researchers from North Carolina State University and Ohio University discovered that having an "alcohol identity" puts college students at greater risk of having drinking problems - and that posting about alcohol use on social media sites is actually a stronger predictor of alcohol problems than having a drink.

"This work underscores the central role that social networking sites, or SNSs, play in helping students coordinate, advertise and facilitate their drinking experiences," says Lynsey Romo, an assistant professor of communication at NC State and co-lead author. "The study also indicates that students who are at risk of having drinking problems can be identified through SNSs."

Study participants were asked about their SNS use, alcohol consumption, alcohol problems and their alcohol-related use of SNSs, as well as a series of questions designed to measure their motivations for drinking. The question the team wanted to answer was, “What drives students to drink and post about alcohol on social networks?”

"The strongest predictor of both drinking alcohol and posting about it on SNSs was espousing an alcohol identity - meaning that the individuals considered drinking a part of who they are," says Charee Thompson, an assistant professor of communication studies at Ohio University and co-lead author of the study. "And those two behaviors were associated with alcohol problems - such as missing school or work, or getting into fights - because of drinking.

Interestingly, the researchers found that posting about alcohol use on social media was actually a stronger predictor of alcohol problems than alcohol use was. That is, having a drink was less strongly correlated with alcohol problems than posting about alcohol use was - though clearly students with alcohol problems were drinking alcohol.

"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," Thompson says.

In other words, social networking has become part of a vicious circle that provides positive reinforcement for dubious behavior.

Romo sees a utilitarian, albeit surveillance-oriented, use for her team's findings. "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," she says. "And social media may help identify those students. For example, colleges could train student leaders and others in administrative positions to scan SNSs for text and photos that may indicate alcohol problems."