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BYU researchers track Adderall abuse via Twitter

PROVO — Adderall abuse is trending on college campuses, particularly on the East Coast. BYU researchers believe Twitter could help public health officials prevent some of the drug abuse.

A new study from the computational health science research group at BYU used Twitter to track Adderall abuse and found the number of tweets mentioning Adderall swelled midweek, indicating students used the drug as a study aid, not recreationally, and peaked during finals. GPS placed the bulk of Adderall tweets near college campuses on the East Coast.

Carl Hanson, the study's lead researcher and an associate professor at BYU, worked with the computer science department to design a study that actively monitored tweets for mentions of Adderall for six months, beginning in November 2011. Tweets also were monitored for mentions of Adderall alongside other keywords — mentions of known side effects, of motives for Adderall abuse or of additional substances, such as alcohol, coffee or other stimulants used alongside Adderall.

"Rather than doing our traditional survey, we're using our collaborative relationship with the computer science department to crawl through social media," Hanson, who oversees the master's of public health program at BYU, said. "It was a natural relationship."

Though mentions on Twitter can't prove who actually took the drug — at least some of the tweets caught by the analysis referred to song lyrics that mention Adderall, Hanson said — the fact that more than 200,000 tweets mention Adderall suggests the drug is a topic of conversation among college students.

"If people are having a conversation about this online, it creates a social norm that encourages the behavior," Hanson said.

But if they can track the conversation online, Hanson said he believes that with further research, they could also intervene.

Christophe Giraud-Carrier, an associate professor of computer science at BYU and another researcher on the Adderall analysis, said he too sees great potential for social media to prevent drug abuse and a host of other societal ills. Particularly if tracking behaviors online could allow public health officials to identify and target specific social networks where Adderall abuse occurs.

"If you hang out with people who do things like this, chances are you will continue that behavior," Giraud-Carrier said.

But this requires answers to questions computer scientists have yet to solve. How do you build a model of a real-life community on a site like Twitter?

That, Giraud-Carrier said, is what has him and his team of computer scientists especially excited. The group's most recent study could allow public health officials to target specific areas of interest at times when drug abuse could occur. But if future work leads to better ways of tracking social networks online, future interventions could target the social groups where drug use begins.

"This is just one of many possibilities," Giraud-Carrier said. "These studies raise a whole slough of questions we wouldn't look at if health and computers had never intersected."