National substance use patterns on Twitter

Thumbnail Image


Publication or External Link





Meng H-W, Kath S, Li D, Nguyen QC (2017) National substance use patterns on Twitter. PLoS ONE 12(11): e0187691. 10.1371/journal.pone.0187691


Purpose: We examined openly shared substance-related tweets to estimate prevalent sentiment around substance use and identify popular substance use activities. Additionally, we investigated associations between substance-related tweets and business characteristics and demographics at the zip code level. Methods: A total of 79,848,992 tweets were collected from 48 states in the continental United States from April 2015-March 2016 through the Twitter API, of which 688,757 were identified as being related to substance use. We implemented a machine learning algorithm (maximum entropy text classifier) to estimate sentiment score for each tweet. Zip code level summaries of substance use tweets were created and merged with the 2013 Zip Code Business Patterns and 2010 US Census Data. Results: Quality control analyses with a random subset of tweets yielded excellent agreement rates between computer generated and manually generated labels: 97%, 88%, 86%, 75% for underage engagement in substance use, alcohol, drug, and smoking tweets, respectively. Overall, 34.1% of all substance-related tweets were classified as happy. Alcohol was the most frequently tweeted substance, followed by marijuana. Regression results suggested more convenience stores in a zip code were associated with higher percentages of tweets about alcohol. Larger zip code population size and higher percentages of African Americans and Hispanics were associated with fewer tweets about substance use and underage engagement. Zip code economic disadvantage was associated with fewer alcohol tweets but more drug tweets. Conclusions: The patterns in substance use mentions on Twitter differ by zip code economic and demographic characteristics. Online discussions have great potential to glorify and normalize risky behaviors. Health promotion and underage substance prevention efforts may include interactive social media campaigns to counter the social modeling of risky behaviors.


Partial funding for Open Access provided by the UMD Libraries' Open Access Publishing Fund.