Posting about alcohol use on social media sites — such as Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram — is actually a stronger predictor of having an alcohol problem than drinking itself, according to a new study by researchers at North Carolina State University and Ohio University.

The findings show college students who have developed an “alcohol identity” and who willfully advertise themselves as drinkers are at greater risk for alcohol-related problems.

“We started this project with a threshold question: what drives students to drink and post about alcohol on social networking sites,” said Dr. Charee Thompson, an assistant professor of communication studies at Ohio University and co-lead author of the study.

“The strongest predictor of both drinking alcohol and posting about it on social networking was the individuals considered drinking a part of who they are,” Thompson said.

“And those two behaviors were associated with alcohol problems  such as missing school or work, or getting into fights because of drinking.”

For the study, 364 undergraduate students at a Midwestern university completed an online survey. All of the students were over the age of 18, had reported consuming at least one alcoholic drink in the past month, and had an active social media account.

Students were asked specifically about their social networking use, alcohol consumption, alcohol problems and their alcohol-related use of social media, as well as questions designed to measure their motivations for drinking.

The findings show that posting about alcohol use on social media is a stronger predictor of alcohol problems than the actual drinking. In other words, having a real drink was less strongly correlated with alcohol problems than posting about alcohol use — though clearly students with alcohol problems are drinking alcohol.

“This might be because posting about alcohol use strengthens a student’s ties to a drinking culture, which encourages more drinking, which could lead to problems,” Thompson said.

The researchers note that future research on student alcohol use may want to further consider how drinking occurs in tandem with other behaviors that could cause students problems.

“This work underscores the central role that social networking sites, or SNSs, play in helping students coordinate, advertise and facilitate their drinking experiences,” said co-lead author Dr. Lynsey Romo, an assistant professor of communication at NC State. “The study also indicates that students who are at risk of having drinking problems can be identified through social networks.”