Monitoring drug use in the digital age: web surveys show ‘great promise’

The online space has become increasingly relevant in identifying trends in illicit drug supply and demand. With increased internet activity globally, drug-related social interactions and purchases have also partially moved online. Against this backdrop, web surveys have become a key element in a range of tools used to monitor the drug phenomenon. In a new set of papers released today, the EMCDDA explores the future of web surveys in drug data collection and their ‘great promise’ in filling research gaps in the drugs field.

The eight papers launched today are the first in a series of EMCDDA insights from experts who have conducted web surveys at local, national and international level. The authors present the breadth of web surveys currently in use in Europe and worldwide, and the role they can play in developing a deeper understanding of drug-related phenomena. The focus of the papers is on surveys solely run on the web for the purposes of collecting data on drug-related issues.

In an introduction to the papers, the EMCDDA states: ‘… web surveys have shown great promise in filling the gaps of pre-existing research on various issues in the drugs field. They have proved valuable in reaching large numbers of people who use drugs and in accessing some hard-to-reach groups of people in a quick and cost-efficient way, generating novel and detailed data about drug-related behaviours. While no single method can provide all information related to evolving drug phenomena, web surveys have provided an important point of triangulation when combined with other information sources.’

The authors illustrate how the findings and analyses from these surveys have supported policy-making and the development of novel online harm-reduction tools and resources, underscoring the potential of web surveys in aiding responses to evolving drug issues. They also demonstrate how web surveys have become an additional tool for early-warning systems to monitor the emergence of new or highly toxic substances on the drug market.

Since 2016, the EMCDDA and its partners have operated an annual European Web Survey on Drugs (EWSD), a voluntary, anonymous survey across 30 countries. It is one of the agency’s targeted ‘leading-edge’ monitoring methods and a key ingredient in the EMCDDA’s responsiveness to an ever-shifting drugs problem.

Topics addressed in the papers include: the challenges and opportunities of designing and implementing a tool for data collection on the internet; analytical insights from the EWSD and policy insights drawn from other international web surveys. Based on the lessons learned from pre-existing surveys, they also outline key issues that researchers and decision-makers should consider when designing, implementing and analysing the results of web surveys.

The collection of papers is the first step by the EMCDDA to review the advantages and methodological limitations of web surveys for drug data collection and to explore their potential in supporting policy making and research. It includes an overview of the range of such surveys implemented in this field and the novel health and policy responses they have helped inform.