The findings, published in the journal JMIR Public Health and Surveillance. indicate a critical need to leverage social media to understand youth experiences and attitudes related to drug use.
“Youths tweets about using drugs to cope with stress, grief and trauma may contribute to distorted perceptions of normative behaviour and may encourage other youths to adopt similar coping strategies in real life,” said study lead-investigator Robin Stevens from the University of Pennsylvania in the US.
“An in-depth, real-time understanding of youth attitudes, across diverse populations, is critical for efforts to decrease substance abuse,” Stevens added.
According to the researchers, substance use by youth remains a significant public health concern and little is known about how posting drug-related content or viewing posted content influences the beliefs and behaviours of youth relative to substance use.
In the new study, the research team characterised the content of 23 million drug-related tweets by youths to identify their beliefs and behaviours related to drug use and better understand the potential mechanisms driving substance use behaviour.
They found that their tweets rarely covered the negative consequences or effects of substance use.
The study also defined the frequency with which drugs are discussed by members of this population on Twitter.
The researchers generated a list of words and hashtags to contribute to analytical lexicons for others interested in similar research and identified themes indicative of the ways in which youth discuss their support for (or opposition to) substance use on social media.