NIH Commits $5 Million to ‘Mine’ Facebook, Instagram, Twitter to Study Drug Abuse

Funding to ‘observe and systemically analyze’ social media interactions

January 13, 2014

The federal government has committed $5 million to "mine and analyze" social media for studies on Americans’ drug habits.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) posted two matching grant announcements on Jan. 3, allotting a total of $5 million to be spent this year. The funding will go to several projects that will involve monitoring sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to survey the population’s drug and alcohol use, and conduct "social media-based interventions" aimed at altering behaviors.

"The goal of this [Funding Opportunity Announcement] FOA is to inspire and support research projects investigating the role of social media in risk behaviors associated with the use and abuse of alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs (hereafter referred to as ‘ATOD’) and projects using social media to ameliorate such behaviors," the NIH said in one announcement, worth $1.5 million.

The studies will use social media interactions as "surveillance tools to aid in the understanding of the epidemiology, risk factors, attitudes, and behaviors associated with ATOD use and addiction."

The NIH said the growing use of social media provides the government with an "unprecedented opportunity" to facilitate research and change behaviors, since roughly 80 percent of American adults regularly use social media.

"Social influences play a key role in shaping health behaviors," the NIH said in an overview of the project. "With the recent surge of social media, online user-generated content and social networking sites (such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter) are becoming an integral part of the communication landscape."

"Consequently, social media are increasingly affecting people’s everyday behaviors, including their attitudes to issues relevant to health," the agency said.

"Various technologies and tools to analyze social media interactions have proliferated and are commercially available," the NIH said. "In this context, behavioral scientists have the unprecedented opportunity to observe and systemically analyze the interactions occurring in social media in studies that may contribute to the goal of improving public health."

The projects will involve two investigative areas, including "observational research," and online interventions that "take advantage of social media" to prevent drug abuse.

The NIH will pay for studies that use "advanced computational techniques to mine and analyze content of public dialogue on social media." The observational area will also identify social media "use patterns" by age, gender, and "health profiles." Other studies will use social media to identify underage drinking.

The research can then be used to examine changing laws related to health behaviors, with a "special interest in cannabis use," the NIH said.

"Monitor social media trends to understand the effects of changing federal, state, or local laws, regulations, and policies on ATOD with a special interest in cannabis use," one objective states.

The second area of research will sanction "social media-based interventions delivered via mobile technology."

The NIH will begin accepting applications next month. Each grant opportunity will provide funding for six or seven studies, ranging from $200,000 to $400,000 in direct costs per year. The projects will last between two and three years.

The federal government is already funding studies for using social media to target health behavior. The National Library of Medicine is spending $30,000 to mine Facebook and Twitter, and learn how tweets can be used as "change-agents" for health behavior.

The NIH has also given $82,800 on how to use Twitter for surveillance on depressed people.

The NIH said in announcing an additional $5 million that not enough research has been done on social media’s effect on health.

"Social networking sites and social media interactions present an important data source for understanding health behaviors and attitudes," it said. "However, current scientific evidence for social media’s utility in health promotion is limited and inconclusive."

"User-generated social media interactions may offer realistic insights into substance use patterns, intentions, consequences, situational factors, and triggering social contexts," the NIH said.