Abstract: Discussions of Inflammatory Bowel Disease on Reddit: Implications for Patient Support

◆ Jacob A. Rohde, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
◆ Joshua O. Barker, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Introduction: Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a highly stigmatized gastrointestinal illness affecting more than three million Americans. To cope with such stigma, many patients use social media as a means to seek or provide social support and to discuss various aspects about their illness with others. Systematically investigating IBD discussions on social media could aid health communication researchers in identifying critical disease-related topics important to patients who may be in need of support. The current study examined 1) prevalent topics among discussions of IBD on the social media platform Reddit; and 2) the extent to which certain IBD-related topics were associated with social support.

Method: We collected all Reddit submissions and comments posted between July 2017 and June 2018 containing at least one IBD-related keyword. After data cleaning procedures, our final corpus contained 4,013 submissions and 51,825 comments. We created a term-based computational dictionary to characterize posts based on seven different IBD-related topics: 1) social support, 2) food/diet, 3) medications/treatments, 4) ostomy, 5) surgery/hospitalization, 6) medical marijuana, and 7) symptoms. Topics were not mutually exclusive. We also classified posts if they were published in an IBD-related subreddit. We used descriptive statistics to characterize the prevalence of topics and IBD-related subreddits among the corpus. We used multivariate logistic regression analysis adjusting for several covariates to identify variables associated with social support posts.

Results: Among the full dataset (N = 55,838), there were a total of 25,856 unique authors posting in 3,473 different subreddits. The most popular IBD-related subreddit was CrohnsDisease (20%). Across both comments and submissions, roughly 32% of posts contained social support content (either seeking or providing support). Topics among posts were mostly about IBD symptoms (30%), food/diet (24%), and medication (24%). Fewer posts were about ostomies (16%), surgery/hospitalization (13%), and medical marijuana (6%). In multivariate analysis, we found that Reddit posts discussing IBD medication (adjusted odds ratio [aOR] = 1.88), health/diet (aOR = 1.71), and symptoms (aOR = 1.54) were most associated with social support (all p < .001). In addition, we found that posts in IBD-related subreddits (as opposed to all other subreddits) were more than two times as likely to contain supportive content (aOR = 2.21; p < .001).

Discussion: This study adds to a growing body of literature examining how IBD is discussed on social media. Our findings show that social support is widely discussed among IBD-related posts on Reddit. Moreover, our results show that certain IBD-related topics, such as health/diet and medication, are most associated with these discussions of social support. Given the stigma that many patients experience due to their illness, we believe these findings are critical as they could potentially inform future work aimed at developing and testing social support messages for patients in need.