Collecting Data from Young Adults Using Web-Based, Respondent-Driven Sampling (webRDS)

social network

The popularity of the internet and social media, particularly among young adults, has created new opportunities for collecting public health data. A new PRC/MI article just published in the September issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, describes a novel approach to collect data from young adults aged 18-24 years regarding alcohol and other drug use. “Innovative Recruitment Using Online Networks: Lessons Learned from an Online Study of Alcohol and Other Drug Use Utilizing a Web-Based, Respondent-Driven Sampling (webRDS) Strategy” describes the methods and lessons learned from collecting data for the Virtual Networks Study.

The Virtual Networks Study used a webRDS strategy to collect information about young adults’ health risk behaviors including alcohol and other drug use. Utilizing the convenience of the internet and young adults’ existing social network connections, webRDS recruits survey participants through a referral chain. Twenty-two original study participants were recruited through targeted Facebook advertisements, and were chosen to represent a variety of racial groups and regions in the United States. After completing surveys, these original participants received incentives for recruiting their friends via social media and email. Subsequent participants that completed surveys were given the same incentive opportunity, building a total study sample of 3,448 participants.

The survey asked about the participants’ use of alcohol, cigarettes, marijuana, cocaine, Ecstasy, hallucinogens, and nonprescription drugs. Their responses were compared to national rates of drug use and found to be comparable to the national use rates for all substances with the exception of cigarettes. The authors explained this difference may be attributable to the above average education level of the participants.

Overall, the webRDS method appears to be a strong method for sampling the young adult population on alcohol and other drug use and could potentially be used to examine other topics. The authors highlight the value of using web-based survey methods to collect data as technology advancements have made traditional techniques less feasible. One potential concern for using the webRDS method to collect data is that although the internet is regularly used by a majority of young adults, disparities in access to computers and services still exist which could lead to underrepresentation of some racial, socioeconomic, or regional groups. It was noted that mobile technology is also growing considerably and may be a medium for data collection that captures a wider range of young adults.

The Virtual Networks Study was conducted in partnership with the Sexuality and Health Lab (SexLab).

Article Citation:
Bauermeister, J. A., Zimmerman, M. A., Johns, M. M., Glowacki, P., Stoddard, S., & Volz, E. (2012). Innovative recruitment using online networks: Lessons learned from an online study of alcohol and other drug use utilizing a web-based, Respondent-Driven Sampling (webRDS) strategy. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 73(5), 834-838. Read Article [PDF]

For more information:
The Virtual Networks Study –
SexLab –