Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute scientists plan to use social media to develop a new approach to addiction recovery, one that takes advantage of people's instinct for social connectedness.
Warren Bickel, a professor at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute, has been awarded a $1.7-million, three-year grant from the National Institutes of Health to study how social media interactions could help people recovering from alcohol, opiate, or stimulant addictions.
"Knowledge is not enough to change behavior," said Bickel, director of the Addiction Recovery Research Center at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute. "Addictive disorders are chronic, but they're treated as acute problems. We need to find creative ways to help people beyond their acute treatment episode. One way might be to take advantage of the fact that humans are exquisitely social creatures."
With the grant, Bickel and his team will study the social physics of recovery using what they call the "social interactome" — an all-encompassing look at how social interactions influence specific behaviors. Learning within social networks derives from group trends rather than the decisions of individuals.
The researchers will create a website based on sharing, much like Facebook. Everything each member does in relation to the website will be displayed and shared with other members who are immediate connections — the equivalent of Facebook friends.
Instead of sharing selfies or requesting lives in CandyCrush, participants will share achievements related to treatment.
"Social media websites with the goal of helping people with addiction already exist," said Bickel, who is also a professor of psychology in Virginia Tech's College of Science. "But people sign up and then they disappear. We need to understand how to keep people interacting."
Bickel's project will build on the International Quit and Recovery Registry. The registry, which Bickel founded in 2011, is an online resource for people in recovery from addiction from all over the world.
Called "recovery heroes," these individuals share their experiences of recovery with Bickel and his team, contributing to the scientific understanding and development of more effective strategies for recovery.
In addition, an interactive therapeutic education system developed by HealthSim LLC, a company Bickel and his colleagues started, will help people with addiction become fluent in the language and skills of recovery.
Previous studies have shown that the addition of the system to a traditional treatment program decreases the likelihood of relapse.
Bickel and his team plan to recruit more than 1,500 participants from the International Quit and Recovery Registry for the study. The participants will be split into six groups, all of which will be provided access to the therapeutic education system.
The scientists will conduct a 12-week trial using two different social networking approaches three different times, to ensure the model is replicable.
The first approach is to test whether a highly latticed network, with multiple, repeating connections, will encourage more engagement and sustained recovery than a network, similar to the World Wide Web, with a wide reach and limited repetition.
The scientists' hypothesis is that individuals who receive multiple notices that their connected neighbors are engaged in pro-recovery actions are more likely to do the same.
The second approach is to compare groups of people according to their addictive substance or mixing individuals with different addictions together. People may be more likely to engage in pro-recovery activity when neighbors with the same prior addiction engage in such an activity, while those with neighbors who do not share a prior addiction may not be so inclined.
The initiative will require novel design and analytical methods, according to Bickel. An array of experts will provide the necessary talent, including Edward Fox, a professor of computer science in Virginia Tech's College of Engineering; Christopher Franck, a research assistant professor at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute and the assistant director of Virginia Tech's Laboratory for Interdisciplinary Statistical Analysis; and Mikhail Koffarnus, a research assistant professor at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute.
A major part of the appeal of using social networking to supplement existing treatment is the growing use of the Internet, according to Bickel.
"The Internet isn't accessible by 100 percent of the world, but it's moving in that direction," Bickel said. "People unable to attend group meetings — because of distance, availability, or time — can receive treatment support this way."
Moreover, it's a low-cost method for providing additional help and encouragement during addiction recovery.
"The goal of our research group is to transform addiction treatment," Bickel said. "We hope that this social networking website is a step in that direction."