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April 14, 2021

Public health researchers use Reddit to understand attitudes towards drug use

By SHIRLEY MARINO LEE | March 2, 2021

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Researchers used the social network to understand how the show Euphoria impacted its viewers.

For many, social media platforms have become part of everyday life. They provide news, entertainment and a way to communicate with others. In recent years these platforms have also become low-cost tools for investigating and intervening in a variety of public health issues.

One recent study titled “‘This show hits really close to home on so many levels’: An analysis of Reddit comments about HBO’s Euphoria to understand viewers’ experiences of and reactions to substance use and mental illness” exemplifies how social media can be used to understand public health issues. The study was published in Drug and Alcohol Dependence in December 2020, and it aimed to identify themes within the HBO series Euphoria that resonated with young adult viewers in order to obtain information that could be used in future social media interventions. 

The study was conducted by a team led by Michelle R. Kaufman, assistant professor in the Department of Health, Behavior and Society at the School of Public Health, along with Alicia T. Bazell and Anne Collaco, two master’s candidates at the School of Public Health, and João Sedoc, a collaborator from New York University. 

Kaufman shared her interest in the intersection between social media and public health in an interview with The News-Letter.

“I have interests in the intersection between digital media and social media and connections with health outcomes in adolescents, so I do a lot of work looking at social media mentoring and online spaces experiments with different types of media and what impact it has on young people’s behaviors and attitudes,” she said.

Kaufman explained how the idea to conduct the study with Reddit came about. 

“I saw the show Euphoria and found it very compelling, so I thought, ‘I wonder what young people of similar age to the characters actually think about this,’” she said. “I went to Reddit, and I was just starting to read the comments and thought, ‘Wow, people are actually talking about their own experiences with substance abuse and how they relate to the characters.’”

In an interview with The News-Letter, Bazell elaborated that prior research had already confirmed the impact that shows like Euphoria can have.

“Media has an impact on people, especially young people who are really susceptible to it, so we wanted to examine that and whether they think it is beneficial or detrimental,” she said.

The social media platform chosen for this study was Reddit because it grants anonymity to its users and is organized into subcommunities or “subreddits.” Previous research has shown that this anonymity, which is unique to Reddit when compared to other platforms such as Facebook or Twitter, results in users being more likely to share personal details when discussing topics that are socially stigmatized.

Euphoria was chosen due to its popularity among young viewers and the substance use disorder topics portrayed in the show. The first season aired on HBO in June 2019, and it introduced viewers to its main character Rue. At the beginning of the season, Rue had just returned from inpatient substance use treatment, and the rest of the season follows her as she tries to cope with her substance use disorder and her complex life.

In an interview with The News-Letter, Bazell shared more about what made Euphoria a good candidate for this study.

Euphoria was very unique in that HBO usually doesn’t target its shows at such a young population. It provides a really raw view into substance abuse, and one of the comments that we saw over and over was that it could be triggering for people who actually have substance use disorder because it shows the challenges and how it is not a linear process. There’s progress, pitfalls, relapse and bad coping mechanisms,” she said. 

During the study, Reddit comments within the r/television subreddit were used as data. The comments were filtered to contain only those posted during the original airing of the first season and that were relevant to Euphoria and Rue.

The analysis of these comments revealed that users regarded the show as an accurate portrayal of substance use disorder, since there was much overlap between scenes in the show and users’ own experiences. In regard to the depiction of substance use and the life of high school students, users expressed approximately equal numbers of neutral, positive and negative reactions toward Euphoria. Additionally, some users believed Rue was an accurate depiction of how substance use disorder affects a person and their relationships.

Regarding how these results could be used in the future, Kaufman explained that they could inform future social media interventions.

“A study like this on Euphoria helps us to determine what is compelling and what short snippets of content might be attractive in a social media space,” she said. “Seeing which scenes and types of characters people respond to and then open up about helps to design social media interventions in the same sort of style.”

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