In their new article, “Using Machine Learning of Online Expression to Explain Recovery Trajectories: Content Analytic Approach to Studying a Substance Use Disorder Forum,” published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, the HITS research group applied supervised machine learning (ML) to conduct large-scale content analysis of an online peer-to-peer discussion forum. This helped them to understand how communication styles relate to writers’ substance use and well-being outcomes.
Smartphone-based apps are increasingly used to prevent relapse among those with substance use disorders (SUDs). These systems collect a wealth of data from participants, including the content of messages exchanged in peer-to-peer support forums. How individuals self-disclose and exchange social support in these forums may provide insight into their recovery course, but a manual review of a large corpus of text by human coders is inefficient.
The study sought to evaluate the feasibility of applying supervised machine learning (ML) to perform large-scale content analysis of an online peer-to-peer discussion forum. Machine-coded data were also used to understand how communication styles relate to writers’ substance use and well-being outcomes.
Data were collected from a smartphone app that connects patients with SUDs to online peer support via a discussion forum. Overall, 268 adult patients with SUD diagnoses were recruited from 3 federally qualified health centers in the United States beginning in 2014. Two waves of survey data were collected to measure demographic characteristics and study outcomes: at baseline (before accessing the app) and after 6 months of using the app. Messages were downloaded from the peer-to-peer forum and subjected to manual content analysis. These data were used to train supervised ML algorithms using features extracted from the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (LIWC) system to automatically identify the types of expression relevant to peer-to-peer support. Regression analyses examined how each expression type was associated with recovery outcomes.
Our manual content analysis identified 7 expression types relevant to the recovery process (emotional support, informational support, negative affect, change talk, insightful disclosure, gratitude, and universality disclosure). Over 6 months of app use, 86.2% (231/268) of participants posted on the app’s support forum. Of these participants, 93.5% (216/231) posted at least 1 message in the content categories of interest, generating 10,503 messages. Supervised ML algorithms were trained on the hand-coded data, achieving F1-scores ranging from 0.57 to 0.85. Regression analyses revealed that a greater proportion of the messages giving emotional support to peers was related to reduced substance use. For self-disclosure, a greater proportion of the messages expressing universality was related to improved quality of life, whereas a greater proportion of the negative affect expressions was negatively related to quality of life and mood.
This study highlights a method of natural language processing with potential to provide real-time insights into peer-to-peer communication dynamics. First, we found that our ML approach allowed for large-scale content coding while retaining moderate-to-high levels of accuracy. Second, individuals’ expression styles were associated with recovery outcomes. The expression types of emotional support, universality disclosure, and negative affect were significantly related to recovery outcomes, and attending to these dynamics may be important for appropriate intervention.
Full citation: Yang E, Kornfield R, Liu Y, Chih M, Sarma P, Gustafson D, Curtin J, Shah D
Using Machine Learning of Online Expression to Explain Recovery Trajectories: Content Analytic Approach to Studying a Substance Use Disorder Forum
J Med Internet Res 2023;25:e45589, URL: https://www.jmir.org/2023/1/e45589, DOI: 10.2196/45589
Full article available through Journal of Medical Internet Research.