What can Google trends tell us about whether the news media drive interest in drugs?

There’s an interesting piece about whether media interest in ‘legal highs’ contributes to the likely use of those drugs over on the VICE website.

They take the recent story that the Mail in Sunday, and other news media, ran about the drug salvia being available on Amazon as a case study and say:

As soon as the article was published (in May 2013), Google searches for “salvia amazon” shot up astronomically. Whether any of those searches led to sales of salvia is impossible to tell, but the Mail’s piece generated a significant amount of publicity for the drug.

And they’re right as the graph below shows, there has been a spike of people searching Google using that term.

salvia amazon

It’s important to note that what Google are showing is relative interest rather than the absolute number of searches – so 100 represents the peak interest not that only 100 people searched.

What the Vice story doesn’t make clear is that it appears that almost all of the searches come from the USA, where I believe the Mail’s website has a very large following.

I thought it might be interesting to look at how these spikes, which I don’t doubt are caused by media interest, compare to other search terms.  

The first thing I did was remove the reference to Amazon and as you can see the spike disappears, dwarfed by events like the reporting on a celebrity’s apparent problems.



Then limiting the search to the UK, where once again interest in the life and reported troubles of a celeb led to the biggest search spike.

salvia uk

Then I added searches for other drugs and in the case of mephedrone added one of the nicknames used (‘meow meow’).

google searches

As you can see the level of interest – if we’re judging it by search terms – for ‘legal highs’ is much lower than for the more widely used drugs (cannabis and cocaine), but that the sustained media debate around the last government’s response to mephedrone did manage to raise interest in the drug to those levels for a short period.

As Vice note, what this data doesn’t tell us is anything about the motivation of those using the search terms.

Using Facebook to Change Behaviour

We all know that Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites have the potential to be used and abused when it comes to health.  We’ve seen the reporting of teenage parties that have gone off the rails once advertised on Facebook, and how user generated content about alcohol is probably more worrying than how alcohol companies themselves are using the platform.

On the flip side social movements, campaigning and fundraising have been transformed by the growth of these sites.

But I don’t think I’ve seen anything which looks at how Facebook can be used to improve health behaviours until now.  This paper which looks at whether sexual health prevention messages delivered via Facebook can preventing increases in sexual risk behaviour at 2 and 6 months changes that.

As you’ll see the measure of success was around the use of condoms and they report:

Time by treatment effects were observed at 2 months for condom use (intervention 68% vs control 56%, =0.04) and proportion of sex acts protected by condoms (intervention 63% vs control 57%, =0.03) where intervention participation reduced the tendency for condom use to decrease over time.

What they weren’t able to show was that the effects lasted as long as 6 months.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that if you can get the messages right and get an audience for them that this offers a low cost way of delivering effective prevention messages.

Something to think about as we explore what the Prevention Hub might be?

Could the Internet help deliver health information to young people who have been through the prison system?

This intriguing paper from the US looks at whether the internet might be a good way of delivering health information to young people on release from prison.

Admittedly it is a small survey – only 79 people – but it suggests in that community at least that there are high levels of access to the internet outside of prison and that accessing health information online could be seen as a positive way of engaging with personal health information.

It would be interesting to think about whether the young people we’re working with in the Breaking Out project expect to have access to the internet once they leave Polmont, and whether an online service might be one of the ways we could support their health behaviours once they are released.

Any thoughts?

Computer says ‘yes’!

Researchers from the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, University of New South Wales, Australia have published a poster covering their findings from the first review to focus specifically on computer and Internet-based programs for the prevention of alcohol and drugs in schools.

They found 7 programmes that had sufficient data, of which:

  • 6 achieved a reduction in alcohol or drug use
  • 2 decreased intentions to smoke
  • 2 increased alcohol or drug-related knowledge

Looking at the results the authors perhaps unsurprisingly found:

The present results, together with the implementation advantages and high fidelity associated with new technology, suggest that programs facilitated by the Internet offer a promising delivery method for school-based prevention.