Researchers say Facebook can influence health

Researchers say Facebook can influence health
Researchers say Facebook can influence health
Researchers at the Colorado School of Public Health in Denver decided to see if social media influencers – a key group for marketers—is a big deal when the goal is to influence health habits. In this case the goal was to encourage teens to take precautions against sexually transmitted diseases. Aside from the potential benefits, such as providing an additional health-ed platform about HIV and pregnancy, the researchers said that it could also serve as a resource teens could tap into on an as-needed, regular basis, in contrast to the occasional doctor visit. Further, the authors noted it could also be a way to balance out health access, since African-American youth typically use health services less than whites.

Data from the Pew Internet and American Life Project also shows why succeeding in social media could be a big deal—a February 2012 report found that the typical number of users can reach around 31,000. It also found that friends typically don't block friends, and less than 5% of users hid content from another user on their Facebook feed.

Colorado's researchers found that they could use teens to change peer sexual behavior, on par with the typical low- or no-tech initiatives. The researchers looked into habits by recruiting candidates who were Facebook users and having these recruits get at least three others to sign onto the project. Members of this second set of three were given incentives to recruit an additional three friends. Recruits were then divided into two groups: one would “like” information on a page called “Just/Us” and the control group would “like” a page called “18-24 news.” Liking a page funnels that page's updates into the liker's news feed, which means members of the liker's network will see the respective site updates when they look at their friend's page.

The “Just/Us” site framed sexual health as a human right and urged youth to share their ideas with each other and with experts, covering sexual history, health relationships, how to negotiate condom use and how to get tested for STDs. It included quizzes, videos and links, in addition to discussions. The news page avoided all sexual health content, but covered news that would interest 18-to-24-year-olds.

Both sets of participants took behavioral risk assessments before the project and 8 weeks later.

The result: members of Just/Us group increased its condom use two months into the study, but use reverted to pre-site levels after 6 months. The researchers noted that this is somewhat expected, because “ample evidence that youth condom use declines with age and fluctuates with other factors such as relationship status.”

The authors are not discouraged by the short-term impact. Instead, they noted that the data indicates that Facebook could be an opportunity for clinics that provide sexual health services to reach more teens because an active presence on Facebook could “intensify, supplement or extend the efficacy of their own sexual health promotion efforts.”

Before jumping in and setting up a page, potential page sponsors should note that the impact is all about who is liking their page, since the “likes” and the liker's universe is paramount. The reason: researchers wrote that teens found their way to the sex-ed content through their friends' news feeds, meaning the “liked” information could appear in a stream of other information that includes cat videos and news about classmates or a really bad test, as opposed to seeking out the educational information themselves or going to the source directly. Also citing Pew, the authors said this makes sense, since Pew's research shows that youth generally spend their social media time “posting comments on friends' photos; posting messages to a friend's wall; and sending private emails to their friends.” By contrast, they write “There is little evidence to suggest a majority of youth actively seek out and engage with organizations on Facebook.”

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