Little is known about the influence of online peer interactions on health behavior change. This study examined the relationship between exposure to peer sentiment about nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) in an online social network for smoking cessation and NRT use.
Participants were 3297 current smokers who enrolled in an Internet smoking cessation program, participated in a randomized trial, and completed a 3-month follow-up. Half received free NRT as part of the trial. Automated text classification identified 27,038 posts about NRT that one or more participants were exposed to in the social network. Sentiment towards NRT was rated on Amazon Mechanical Turk. Participants’ exposure to peer sentiment about NRT was determined by analysis of clickstream data. Modified Poisson regression examined self-reported use of NRT at 3-months as a function of exposure to NRT sentiment, controlling for study arm and post exposure.
One in five participants (19.3%, n = 639) were exposed to any NRT-related posts (mean exposure = 6.5 ± 14.7, mean sentiment = 5.4 ± 0.8). The association between sentiment exposure and NRT use varied by receipt of free NRT. Greater exposure to positive NRT sentiment was associated with an increased likelihood of NRT use among participants who did not receive free NRT (adjusted rate ratio 1.22, 95% CI 1.01, 1.47; p = .043), whereas no such relationship was observed among participants who did receive free NRT (p = .48).
Exposure to positive sentiment about NRT was associated with increased NRT use when smokers obtained it on their own. Highlighting user-generated content containing positive NRT sentiment may increase NRT use among treatment-seeking smokers.