Researchers at the University of California - San Francisco (UCSF) in the US believe the method can be used effectively to support short-term positive behaviour change, especially among young adult smokers, which has been a challenging group to reach and treat.
“We found that we could reach a hard-to-reach population, have short-term abstinence, and also have excellent engagement,” said Danielle Ramo, an associate professor at UCSF.
“It suggests that the social media environment can be an engaging tobacco treatment tool, even for those not ready to quit,” said Ramo.
The researchers created the Tobacco Status Project, a 90-day motivational programme in which participants were assigned to secret (private) Facebook groups tailored to their readiness to quit smoking.
The intervention consisted of methods, including daily posts, weekly live question and answer sessions, and weekly live cognitive behavioral counselling sessions with a doctoral-level smoking cessation counsellor.
The control group received a referral to the US National Cancer Institute’s Smokefree.gov website and was encouraged to actively use it for the duration of the trial.
Altogether, 500 people participated: 45 per cent were males, 73 per cent were white and 87 per cent were daily smokers. The mean age was nearly 21.
The researchers assessed abstinence at the beginning, then at three months, six months and 12 months.
Participants could receive a monetary incentive consisting of gift cards at each assessment, plus a $20 bonus for completing all three, for a total possible incentive of $100.
Researchers found that the social media programme had a significant effect on quitting during the time that the intervention was active, amounting to three months.
They also found that abstinence over a longer period occurred among those who were prepared to stop smoking versus those who simply contemplated it or those who were not thinking about it at all.
Those assigned to the Tobacco Status Project were two and a half times more likely to have biochemically verified abstinence from smoking compared to controls at three months (8.3 per cent vs 3.2 per cent).