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Status: Drunk. Can Facebook Posts Help ID Problem Drinkers?

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The next time some blustery college kid boasts on Facebook about how wasted he was last night, don’t just roll your eyes. He may be telegraphing he’s got a drinking problem, according to research published Monday in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.

The study focused on college students, nearly 1,700 of whom die each year as a result of alcohol-related overdoses, injuries or car accidents. Because college students don’t regularly go to the doctor, alcohol abuse isn’t often picked up through the health-care system.

In the absence of clinical data, though, sites like Facebook might offer a clue about whether a person’s drinking is harmful. “Social media gives us a new way to look at behaviors that are tough to identify on the surface,” says Megan Moreno, lead author of the study and an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Moreno looked at 307 public profiles of underage college students at two public universities, then developed a coding system to categorize students: “non-displayers” were college students who didn’t mention alcohol use on Facebook; “alcohol displayers” were those who shared news or pictures about alcohol use; and those who posted about being seriously drunk were “intoxication or problem drinking displayers.”

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The students were then asked to fill out a standard survey used to assess alcohol use problems; 224 students agreed. Based on their reported patterns of drinking and potential for harm, they received a score indicating possible at-risk behavior. Score an 8 or higher, and that means you could be a problem drinker. Overall, 35% of students scored high enough to be placed in the at-risk category.

The researchers then compared the students’ scores to their Facebook profiles to see whether their alcohol-related updates, photos and comments had any bearing on their actual problem-drinking risk.

Not surprisingly, a greater percentage of students whose profiles indicated that they’d been very drunk were considered at risk for problem drinking. Compared with students in the “alcohol displayers” group (those who make alcohol-related comments like “I had a couple of beers,” versus intoxication-related comments like “I’ve been hung over all weekend”), students who shared war stories or photographic evidence of drunkenness were 1.5 times more likely to score high on the problem-drinking survey.

Male students who posted about being drunk scored 89% higher on problem-drinking indicators than those who never posted about drinking.

In general, students who posted on Facebook about intoxication were more than six times as likely as those who posted nothing about alcohol to have reported an alcohol-related injury in the past year — anything from a fistfight to a car accident.

The takeaway for Mom and Dad: “If parents start to see references to intoxication, it’s probably time to pick up the phone and have a tough conversation,” says Moreno.

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It may be reassuring to parents that 64% of students had no references to alcohol use in their Facebook profiles, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. According to the problem-drinking survey, 23% of these “non-displayer” students scored high enough to be considered at risk for problem drinking. “Non-displayer doesn’t mean that someone never drinks,” says Moreno. “It means that it’s not important enough to them to make it part of their online identity.”

Similarly, while just 16% of students’ Facebook profiles fell into the “intoxication or problem drinking” group, the majority of these teens — 58% — scored in the at-risk category on the alcohol use survey. Thirty-eight percent of the online “alcohol displayers” fell into the same survey category.

Incidentally, Moreno says she’s heard that many college students have blocked their parents from viewing large chunks of their profile. Oftentimes, it’s aunts and uncles or resident assistants in the dorms who pick up on posts that may actually be a cry for help. “Our hope from this study is that we will be able to empower someone to approach a student and say, Are you doing O.K.?”

Bonnie Rochman is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @brochman. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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