The use of online social networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook and MySpace may be a factor in triggering relapse in adolescents enrolled in substance abuse programs, recent UCLA research suggests.
David Tran, a graduate student in the UCLA Program in Medical Education, which combines a medical degree with a master’s degree in a related field, was the lead author of the study. Of seven studies featured at the American Psychiatric Association’s 2012 annual meeting, which displayed more than 400 other studies, his was the only one led by a student.
For the study, Tran administered a 20-question survey to 37 teenagers enrolled in a substance abuse treatment center in East Los Angeles.
Tran’s research sought to determine if patients were being affected by their online environment through social networking. The study aimed to find if patients were exposed to drug-related cues by posts from their friends and families and whether those cues influenced their treatment.
Of the 92 percent of participants who use social networking sites, more than three-fourths of girls and more than half of boys reported seeing triggers on social networking sites that made them feel like they wanted to use drugs.
Though the results are preliminary, Tran said the study indicates social networking sites could contain environmental cues that influence adolescent substance abuse recovery.
Tran said he was able to combine his life and academic experiences as well as his training to complete the study. Growing up in a low-income community near Orange County, Tran said he was able to create a rapport with the patients by making jokes that he had picked up during his childhood.
“I got to put together everything and look for solutions and tackle a real problem in society,” Tran said.
The results of the study are preliminary and not definitive, said Keith Heinzerling, Tran’s mentor and a co-author on the study. Heinzerling is also the medical director of the UCLA Substance Abuse Pharmacotherapy Unit.
Tran described the study as “exploratory” and said a larger sample size would need to be used for more conclusive results.
Though initial results show that cues posted on social networking sites may have an adverse effect on patient treatment, Tran said he does not believe restricting patients from networking sites will work, because the patients would find other ways to go online.
He said social networking sites are only one facet of the environmental factors that could stimulate patients to relapse. Tran added, however, that the sites could also provide an extra tool in substance abuse counseling.
From the data gathered, Tran and Heinzerling hope to use social networks as a tool to aid in the substance abuse treatment programs, possibly by creating a private Facebook group for patient support and identifying peer leaders within the treatment program to participate, Tran said.
Jackie Benavente, a marriage and family therapist at the UCLA Center for Behavioral and Addiction Medicine, said that in her experience, teenagers are particularly influenced by each other and their environments, both in person and online.
With such widespread social media use among teenagers and young adults, she said, any amount of support online would be helpful, as long as information is kept private.
Similar to the Alcoholics Anonymous programs, where participants make the decision to remove themselves from the people, places and things they associate with alcohol, one course of treatment with online media could involve decreasing the amount of drug-related content patients see, said Tran.
Both Tran and Heinzerling said patients must make the decision to quit by themselves and have opportunities to make the right decisions.
“Our objective isn’t to control, but to give them a fighting chance,” Heinzerling said.