Facebook: Connecting Us to Health?

With one in four persons connected to the internet, even in developing countries, is social media a great information equalizer?

Looking over my current news feed which includes inspirational quotes, video of a guy who didn’t give up and puppies enjoying the new snow, I’m not so sure.

In older, traditional healthcare models, one authority, a doctor, pharmaceutical company, Center for Disease Control, etc. disseminated health information to the public.  With social media now influencing our world, the model has changed dramatically.  Information is available constantly and not just from “authorities.” We have moved from monologues to dialogues.

Will these dialogues make us healthier?  Can Facebook or Twitter influence our health habits for the better?

Researchers at the Colorado School of Public Health wanted to find out.  They used Facebook as a way to encourage teens to take precautions against sexually transmitted diseases.

The study had participants “like” a page and recruit friends to do the same.  Those friends then recruited “likes” from their list of friends.  One page offered information about sexual health and other offered “news” of interest to 18-to-24 year olds.  Participants took behavioral risk assessment before the study and 8 weeks later.

Participants who followed the sexual health information site increased its condom use 2 months into the study.  Facebook may indeed be an avenue for better health outcomes.

The researchers concluded teens in the study found their way to the sex-ed information site through their friends news feeds.  They did note, however, the liked page appeared in a cluttered news feed of classmate news and photos of kittens.  The participants did not seek the information directly.

Can Facebook and Twitter influence our health?  It would appear, yes.  While the participants did not seek out the information directly, they still got there.

In 2009, the World Health Organization disseminated information about the H1N1 pandemic through Twitter to 11,700 followers.  The Spanish Facebook page for the Center for Disease Control has over 20,000 followers.  Is there another way for either organization to reach that many people instantly and in their own language?

Though technology floods us with information and noise, if something accurate and compelling ends up under our nose, we pay attention.   Used properly, social media can connect healthcare information to a larger population (English speaking or otherwise) quickly and directly.

Sherry Dineen

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