Study suggests Twitter can track drug abuse risk

March 6, 2014

Rehab centers are sometimes the best and last chance for those who struggle with drug abuse to get clean, but with more resources being poured into preventative medicine, researchers are finding new ways to predict risks before they even occur.

Researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles and Virginia Polytechnic Institute released their findings in the journal Preventive Medicine of a study on drug use within Twitter’s big data caches, according to UCLA. The study focused on the ability of users’ geographically located tweets to predict their likelihood of engaging in risky behavior with drugs that might later lead to negative health consequences. Researchers believed that with more information, public health professionals may use the information to predict when someone is likely to make a dangerous decision to abuse drugs, and treatment can be adapted to that person’s needs.

Analyzing thousands of tweets
The joint study between UCLA and Virginia Tech originally sought to use geolocated tweets that included words related to drug use and sexual activity as a way to identify situations where HIV could be spread by dirty needles.

Sean Young, assistant professor of family medicine at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine, told the school that the study could have major benefits for the drug treatment community at large.

“This is the first [study] to suggest that Twitter can be used to predict people’s health-related behaviors, and as a method for monitoring HIV risk behaviors and drug use,” Young told UCLA.

The study tracked almost 10,000 tweets that included references to drug use and sexual activity, while also mapping them onto areas in cities across the country that are known for high incidences of both. Because tweets are posted in real time, Young and his colleagues believed that Twitter data could be used to gain an accurate picture of how drug use and health risks develop across an area.

“Ultimately, these methods suggest that we can use ‘big data’ from social media for remote monitoring and surveillance of HIV risk behaviors and potential outbreaks,” Young told UCLA.

New technologies and new treatments
It may have been difficult to understand the need for drug abuse treatment in prior years, but Think Progress explained that several studies into topics such as teen pregnancy and influenza have examined the use of big data on public health issues.

Young’s study may indicate a shift toward predictive treatment for those who struggle with drug abuse. If counselors and medical professionals are able to identify problems before their worst symptoms occur, users may receive treatment even sooner.

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