When it comes to fighting substance abuse, research suggests the company you keep can make the difference between recovery and relapse. So, while group intervention programs can play an important role in preventing substance abuse, especially in at-risk populations such as homeless youth, they can also inadvertently expose participants to negative behaviors.
Now, researchers from the USC Center for Artificial Intelligence in Society have created an algorithm that sorts intervention program participants—who are voluntarily working on recovery—into smaller groups, or subgroups, in a way that maintains helpful social connections and breaks social connections that could be detrimental to recovery.
Aida Rahmattalabi, a USC computer science graduate student and lead author of the study and colleagues from USC Viterbi School of Engineering, USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and the University of Denver worked in collaboration with Urban Peak, a Denver-based non-profit serving homeless youth, to develop the decision aid, which they hope will assist interventionists in substance abuse prevention.
Results showed the algorithm performed significantly better than control strategies for forming groups. The study, called Influence Maximization for Social Network Based Substance Abuse Prevention, was published in the AAAI conference on Artificial Intelligence student abstract section.
Every year, up to two million youth in the U.S. will experience homelessness, and estimates suggest between 39% and 70% of homeless youth abuse drugs or alcohol.
Substance abuse initiatives such as group therapy can offer support by encouraging homeless youth to share their experiences, learn positive coping strategies, and build healthy social networks.
But if these groups are not properly structured, they can exacerbate the problems they intend to treat by encouraging the formation of friendships based on antisocial behavior. This is a process known in social work as “deviancy training,” when peers reinforce each other for deviant behavior.
The team tackled this problem from an artificial intelligence perspective, creating an algorithm that takes into account both how the individuals in a subgroup are connected—their social ties—and their prior history of substance abuse.
Survey data gathered voluntarily from homeless youth in Los Angeles, as well as behavioral theories and observations of previous interventions, were used to build a computational model of the interventions.
Perhaps the most surprising finding was that, contrary to common intuition, evenly distributing regular substance users across the subgroups is not the optimal way to design a successful intervention.
In addition, the analysis suggests that sometimes conducting the intervention could actually have a detrimental on the group.
As new data is added to the algorithm, the researchers hope it will adapt to changing conditions, revealing how social networks evolve during the course of the intervention program. This could allow interventionists to determine how an intervention will shape participant outcomes. The researchers are continuing to work with Urban Peak, and plan to deploy the tool to optimize intervention group strategies for homeless youth in Denver in fall 2018.