Using Twitter Could Help Smokers Quit

A new study has suggested that using Twitter to communicate with other smokers in a stop-smoking program can increase rates of quitting, as long as the tweets are related to abstinence, use of nicotine patches, countering roadblocks to quitting and expressing confidence about quitting. Although social media has been investigated for health interventions before, lack of engagement has been a significant issue, and the new study may have found a solution to the issue by using auto-messages to encourage discussion. However, the finding is only preliminary, so it’s a good idea to learn the details before declaring Twitter to be the savior of smokers around the world. The study aimed to look at the impact of automated messages on quitting outcomes for smokers and engagement with the group. The authors recruited two groups of 20 smokers who were interested in quitting and used a social media-based quit-smoking intervention called Tweet2Quit. The program was designed to be low-cost, easily scalable and capable of running without an expert moderator, and researchers set up automatic tweets to encourage continued engagement. One automatic tweet encouraged a discussion on an evidence-based smoking cessation approach or a topic designed to build a sense of community, and another gave each participant feedback on his or her tweeting over the past 24 hours. The researchers counted and content-coded the participants’ tweets. The program took place over 100 days. The participants in each group had slightly different levels of encouragement, with those in the second group receiving auto-messages every day (whereas the first group received fewer) and being encouraged to quit within the first week (as opposed to the first two weeks, as in the first group). All of the participants received an eight-week supply of nicotine patches, and smoking abstinence was assessed seven, 30 and 60 days after their chosen quit-date.

Specific Types of Tweets Increase Odds of Quitting

The automated tweets seemed to be effective at encouraging engagement, particularly for the second group (for whom the researchers honed the system). Seventy-eight percent of participants (from both groups combined) sent at least one tweet, and the average was 72 tweets per person over the study period. Direct responses to auto-messages only contributed 23 percent of total tweets, with 77 percent being “spontaneous” messages from the smokers in the groups. Overall, any tweeting wasn’t significantly related to odds of abstinence, but specific content did appear associated with increased odds of quitting. Tweets about setting quit-dates or using nicotine patches were associated with 52 percent increases in the odds of kicking the habit, tweeting about countering roadblocks to quitting was associated with a 76 percent increase in the odds of quitting, and expressing confidence was associated with a 71 percent increase in quitting odds. There was no association for those discussing non-evidence-based interventions, like using marijuana, electronic cigarettes, herbs and lasers as quitting aids. Members of both groups were equally likely to be abstinent across the whole study period combined, but at 60 days specifically, 42 percent of the first group and 75 percent of the second group were abstinent. Participants in group two were much more likely to use the provided nicotine patches, which may have been a key influential factor.

So Can Twitter Help Smokers Quit?

The only issue is that this study is very preliminary, specifically because there was no “control” group that didn’t receive the intervention, and there were only limited numbers of participants. The quit-rates seen are impressive—higher than many conventional interventions alone—but without a non-Twitter group to compare to, it could have been the mere fact that the participants were being observed that boosted quitting rates. The small number of participants also means that the results might not apply to all smokers. Finally, there isn’t definitely a causal link between tweeting and successfully quitting based on this study alone: it could be that the more motivated or successful individuals were more likely to tweet, not that tweeting increased motivation. That being said, there is reason to think that using Twitter or social media would be effective, largely because it provides support and a sense of accountability to others, in much the same way a 12-step group does. The fact that participants in group two—who were more effectively encouraged to engage—had better quit-rates at the end of the study seems to indicate that more engagement with the group does encourage successful quitting. A better study, with randomization and a control group, is in the process of recruiting, according to Tweet2Quit’s website.

Social Support Helps People Beat Addiction

This study offers evidence in support of a general idea that many people in recovery will know already: social support helps you beat addiction. The specific finding (that Twitter-based communication about evidence-based interventions can help smokers) may need to be confirmed by more robust studies, but the overall message that accountability to others and social support helps with beating addiction is without doubt. For any smokers trying to quit or for anybody in recovery, it offers encouragement to use your social networks to your advantage and to let people know about how you’re getting on with your journey toward abstinence.

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