Technology and social media use among patients enrolled in outpatient addiction treatment programs: Cross-sectional survey study

Robert D. Ashford, Kevin Lynch, Brenda Curtis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

45 Scopus citations


Background: Substance use disorder research and practice have not yet taken advantage of emerging changes in communication patterns. While internet and social media use is widespread in the general population, little is known about how these mediums are used in substance use disorder treatment. Objective: The aims of this paper were to provide data on patients' with substance use disorders mobile phone ownership rates, usage patterns on multiple digital platforms (social media, internet, computer, and mobile apps), and their interest in the use of these platforms to monitor personal recovery. Methods: We conducted a cross-sectional survey of patients in 4 intensive outpatient substance use disorder treatment facilities in Philadelphia, PA, USA. Logistic regressions were used to examine associations among variables. Results: Survey participants (N=259) were mostly male (72.9%, 188/259), African American (62.9%, 163/259), with annual incomes less than US $10,000 (62.5%, 161/259), and averaged 39 (SD 12.24) years of age. The vast majority of participants (93.8%, 243/259) owned a mobile phone and about 64.1% (166/259) owned a mobile phone with app capabilities, of which 85.1% (207/243) accessed the internet mainly through their mobile phone. There were no significant differences in age, gender, ethnicity, or socio-economic status by computer usage, internet usage, number of times participants changed their phone, type of mobile phone contract, or whether participants had unlimited calling plans. The sample was grouped into 3 age groups (Millennials, Generation Xers, and Baby Boomers). The rates of having a social media account differed across these 3 age groups with significant differences between Baby Boomers and both Generation Xers and Millennials (P<.001 in each case). Among participants with a social media account (73.6%, 190/259), most (76.1%, 144/190) reported using it daily and nearly all (98.2%, 186/190) used Facebook. Nearly half of participants (47.4%, 90/190) reported viewing content on social media that triggered substance cravings and an equal percentage reported being exposed to recovery information on social media. There was a significant difference in rates of reporting viewing recovery information on social media across the 3 age groups with Baby Boomers reporting higher rates than Millennials (P<.001). The majority of respondents (70.1%, 181/259) said they would prefer to use a relapse prevention app on their phone or receive SMS (short message service) relapse prevention text messages (72.3%, 186/259), and nearly half (49.1%, 127/259) expressed an interest in receiving support by allowing social media accounts to be monitored as a relapse prevention technique. Conclusions: To our knowledge, this is the first and largest study examining the online behavior and preferences regarding technology-based substance use disorder treatment interventions in a population of patients enrolled in community outpatient treatment programs. Patients were generally receptive to using relapse prevention apps and text messaging interventions and a substantial proportion supported social media surveillance tools. However, the design of technology-based interventions remains as many participants have monthly telephone plans which may limit continuity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere84
JournalJournal of Medical Internet Research
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 2018
Externally publishedYes


  • Addiction
  • Behavioral health
  • Digital divide
  • Recovery
  • Relapse
  • Social media

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health Informatics


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