A methods mapping review of substance use related internet forum research

First published: 10 May 2019 | Last updated: 20 May 2019


Substance related Internet forums allows for discussion, information exchange, and emotional and peer-support facilitating modern day drug use. Substance related internet forum (SRIF) research remains relatively sparse and methodologies to study these virtual communities are not widely used or understood within the addictions field. The aim of this project was to systematically review the literature to identify the spectrum of methods used to study SRIFs and their associated limitations and strengths.


A systematic search of the Medline (1946-March 2017) and Embase (1947- March 2017) databases was carried out with search terms encompassing a broad range of substances and overlapping with terms indicating Internet Forums.


6281 studies were screened ultimately identifying 56 studies for inclusion. The forums were used to facilitate the use of image and performance enhancing drugs, prescription opioids, novel psychoactive substances, party drugs, hallucinogens and synthetic and non-synthetic cannabinoids. Methods used to analyse these forums included netnography approaches, web-surveys and online interviews, web-crawling and content analysis as well as machine learning assisted coding.


Increasingly sophisticated methods of studying SRIFs, in part by using machine learning, are becoming necessary in response to the growing mountain of digital data. The methods identified here are replicable across different forums, potentially providing a more accessible picture of internet mediated substance use.


Dr Mark McCann Research Fellow. MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit. University of Glasgow. email: Mark.Mccann@glasgow.ac.uk Dr Shona Hilton Deputy Director MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit. University of Glasgow. email:

Conflicts of interest:

no conflict of interests


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Dr Joseph Tay Wee Teck