Nav: Home

A nimbler way to track alcohol use -- by mining Twitter and Google searches

December 02, 2019

BOSTON (December 2, 2019) - Collecting rigorous public health data through large survey-based studies is a slow, expensive process. New research from Boston Children's Hospital shows that mining people's alcohol-related tweets and online searches offers a more immediate, localized information source to complement traditional methods, offering public health professionals the opportunity to spot emerging trends and measure the effects of alcohol-related interventions. Findings appear December 2 in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

"Online user-generated data are fluid and nimble - and have the potential to be really rich sources of information in specific geographic areas and during tight time intervals," says Elissa Weitzman, ScD, MSc, of the Division of Adolescent/Young Adult Medicine and the Computational Health Informatics Program at Boston Children's and the study's first author and principal investigator. "We set out to draw a relationship between these novel data and established, curated, nationally representative survey data."

Alcohol use in particular is difficult to track accurately at the local level, where drinking patterns may vary according to local culture, policy changes, and awareness campaigns. And large-scale surveillance systems aren't fine-grained enough to detect the effects of anti-alcohol campaigns.

"These systems are constructed to create a population-representative picture - they don't usually reflect local patterns or shed light on the effects of local or regional interventions," says Weitzman. "By examining online interactions, there's the potential to rapidly evaluate health activity and translate what you've learned into public policy and programming -- you can get out in front of things."

Weitzman and her colleagues used Google Trends data to estimated search volumes for seven alcohol-related keywords (alcohol, alcoholic, alcoholism, drinking, beer, liquor, wine) relative to all Google searches. To complement that, they also estimated the proportion of Twitter posts broadcasting personal alcohol use, using natural language processing to classify tweets and eliminate "false positives" (like tweets referencing "drinking" in a non-alcohol context).

The team then took these estimates state by state and compared them to survey responses in the same state to questions about alcohol use, from the national Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System (BRFSS). Among its many questions, the survey asked: "During the past 30 days, how many days per week or per month did you have at least one drink of any alcoholic beverage such as beer, wine, a malt beverage, or liquor?"

Of the BRFSS survey's nearly 1.3 million respondents in 2014-16, 53 percent reported recent alcohol use. Weitzman and colleagues found clear associations between a survey respondent's use of alcohol and the relative volume of alcohol-related searches and tweets in that respondent's state for the year and month they were surveyed. The relationships held in sub-analyses that looked at reported frequency and amount of drinking.

"It was astonishing to me that we could see this, because drinking behaviors are subtle and personal," says Weitzman, "On the other hand, it was exactly as expected, because the online world represents a powerful source of influence on behavior and can be a fairly accurate mirror of reality."

The team further showed that in states with strong alcohol policies, such as increasing the price of alcohol, limiting happy hours, and regulating public consumption, individuals' likelihood of drinking was reduced, even in areas with high levels of alcohol-related searching and tweeting. This suggested that the prevailing "alcohol environment," as captured by online behavior, had less of an influence on an individual's drinking.

"This is sound evidence of alcohol policies working as intended," says Tim Naimi, MD, MPH, of Boston Medical Center, a coauthor and leading expert on alcohol policy.

The study lays a groundwork for tracking emerging alcohol-related public health concerns.

"Informal social media and search data may be really important for detecting and responding to things that we don't anticipate - or that occur naturally," says senior author Lauren Wisk, PhD, formerly of Boston Children's Hospital and now at the University of California Los Angeles.

"Our results give confidence in our public health tools and in using novel data approaches to measure health behaviors and policy effects -- a real win," Weitzman adds.
Co-authors on the study, in addition to Wisk and Naimi, were Kara Magane, MS, formerly of Boston Children's Hospital and now at the Boston University School of Public Health, Po-Hua Chen, MD, of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and Hadi Amiri, PhD, of Harvard Medical School. The study was supported by the NIH National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (R21AA023901).

Boston Children's Hospital is ranked the #1 children's hospital in the nation by U.S. News & World Report and is the primary pediatric teaching affiliate of Harvard Medical School. Home to the world's largest research enterprise based at a pediatric medical center, its discoveries have benefited both children and adults since 1869. Today, 3,000 researchers and scientific staff, including 8 members of the National Academy of Sciences, 18 members of the National Academy of Medicine and 12 Howard Hughes Medical Investigators comprise Boston Children's research community. Founded as a 20-bed hospital for children, Boston Children's is now a 415-bed comprehensive center for pediatric and adolescent health care. For more, visit our Discoveries blog and follow us on social media @BostonChildrens, @BCH_Innovation, Facebook and YouTube.

Boston Children's Hospital

Related Alcohol Articles:

Sobering new data on drinking and driving: 15% of US alcohol-related motor vehicle fatalities involve alcohol under the legal limit
A new study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, published by Elsevier, found that motor vehicle crashes involving drivers with blood alcohol concentrations (BACs) below the legal limit of 0.08 percent accounted for 15% of alcohol-involved crash deaths in the United States.
Alcohol marketing and underage drinking
A new study by a research team including scientists from the Prevention Research Center of the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation provides a systematic review of research that examines relationships between exposure to alcohol marketing and alcohol use behaviors among adolescents and young adults.
Alcohol-induced deaths in US
National vital statistics data from 2000 to 2016 were used to examine how rates of alcohol-induced deaths (defined as those deaths due to alcohol consumption that could be avoided if alcohol weren't involved) have changed in the US and to compare the results by demographic groups including sex, race/ethnicity, age, socioeconomic status and geographic location.
Cuts in alcohol duty linked to 2000 more alcohol-related deaths in England
Government cuts to alcohol taxes have had dramatic consequences for public health, including nearly 2000 more alcohol-related deaths in England since 2012, according to new research from the University of Sheffield's School of Health and Related Research (ScHARR).
Integrated stepped alcohol treatment for people in HIV care improves both HIV & alcohol outcomes
Increasing the intensity of treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD) over time improves alcohol-related outcomes among people with HIV, according to new clinical research supported by the National Institutes of Health.
The Lancet:Targets to reduce harmful alcohol use are likely to be missed as global alcohol intake increases
Increasing rates of alcohol use suggest that the world is not on track to achieve targets against harmful alcohol use, according to a study of 189 countries' alcohol intake between 1990-2017 and estimated intake up to 2030, published in The Lancet.
Alcohol-induced brain damage continues after alcohol is stopped
Now, a joint work of the Institute of Neuroscience CSIC-UMH, in Alicante, and the Central Institute of Mental Health of Mannheim, in Germany, has detected, by means of magnetic resonance, how the damage in the brain continues during the first weeks of abstinence, although the consumption of alcohol ceases.
Does alcohol consumption have an effect on arthritis?
Several previous studies have demonstrated that moderate alcohol consumption is linked with less severe disease and better quality of life in patients with rheumatoid arthritis, but a new Arthritis Care & Research study suggests that this might not be because drinking alcohol is beneficial.
How genes affect tobacco and alcohol use
A new study gives insight into the complexity of genetic and environmental factors that compel some of us to drink and smoke more than others.
Cutting societal alcohol use may prevent alcohol disorders developing -- Otago research reveals
Society must take collective responsibility to reduce the harm caused by alcohol use disorders, a University of Otago academic says.
More Alcohol News and Alcohol Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Climate Mindset
In the past few months, human beings have come together to fight a global threat. This hour, TED speakers explore how our response can be the catalyst to fight another global crisis: climate change. Guests include political strategist Tom Rivett-Carnac, diplomat Christiana Figueres, climate justice activist Xiye Bastida, and writer, illustrator, and artist Oliver Jeffers.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#562 Superbug to Bedside
By now we're all good and scared about antibiotic resistance, one of the many things coming to get us all. But there's good news, sort of. News antibiotics are coming out! How do they get tested? What does that kind of a trial look like and how does it happen? Host Bethany Brookeshire talks with Matt McCarthy, author of "Superbugs: The Race to Stop an Epidemic", about the ins and outs of testing a new antibiotic in the hospital.
Now Playing: Radiolab

Speedy Beet
There are few musical moments more well-worn than the first four notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. But in this short, we find out that Beethoven might have made a last-ditch effort to keep his music from ever feeling familiar, to keep pushing his listeners to a kind of psychological limit. Big thanks to our Brooklyn Philharmonic musicians: Deborah Buck and Suzy Perelman on violin, Arash Amini on cello, and Ah Ling Neu on viola. And check out The First Four Notes, Matthew Guerrieri's book on Beethoven's Fifth. Support Radiolab today at