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Can Social Media Prevent the Spread of Disease?

By Senior News Editor
Reviewed by John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on November 28, 2012

Can Social Media Prevent the Spread of Disease?A new study leverages social media to reduce and prevent diseases from spreading.

A Kansas State University-led research team investigated the use of social media posts and tweets to spread the word on the value of preventative behaviors. Experts believe such innovative use of information technology can reduce medical errors, lower health care spending and improve the overall health of the population.

Researchers studied whether a well-timed post from a public authority or trustworthy person could be as beneficial as flu shots, hand-washing or sneezing into an elbow.

“Infectious diseases are a serious problem and historically have been a major cause of death,” said Faryad Sahneh, a Kansas State University doctoral candidate in electrical engineering who is modeling the spread of epidemics in an effort to reduce them.

“During the last decades there has been a huge advancement in medication and vaccination, which has helped save many peoples’ lives. But now there also has been a revolution in communication and information technology that we think could be used to develop an even more robust preventative society against infectious diseases.”

Sahneh and a wide range of research collaborators are working to develop accurate models that account for realistic human behavior.

One researcher, Gary Brase, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology, is collecting data by surveying college-age students about social media and what preventative measures they use against illness. Results indicate that a majority of participants get their information predominately from Facebook and a few other social media sites.

Moreover, the majority of participants stated they would be willing to increase preventative behaviors such as washing their hands more, taking vitamins or getting a flu shot if asked to do so.

“However, we also saw that restricting contact with family and friends is something that people are not willing to do,” Brase said. “If you think about how diseases are spread, one of the best things you can do is to not interact with other people. But we’ve seen that this is one thing that people are not very excited about doing.”

Researchers are also studying if social media can penetrate groups such as teachers or public officials who regularly interact with a large number of the public, said Caterina Scoglio, Ph.D., an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and an expert in complex network modeling.

If exposed to a disease, these individuals can potentially infect everyone they interact with throughout the day. Reaching that group, though, could help suppress the disease spreading.

“If 30 people in that group get a flu vaccine, they will have less probability of getting the flu,” Sahneh said. “But, by being vaccinated, it’s also benefiting all who come into contact with those 30 people because there is now a reduced chance of the flu being transmitted by those 30 individuals. So reaching that group is pretty important.”

Researchers are also exploring who is the most effective or influential at distributing information through social media.

“One thing we’re discussing is whether it would be better to receive recommendations or advice from someone people know and trust personally, like a friend or the university president, or from someone like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is an authority on the subject but has no personal connection to most people,” Scoglio said.

“It may be something where a best friend has more influence than a public health official.”

The team’s first study was recently published in the open-source Scientific Reports journal. ItĀ found that if individuals quickly adopt the appropriate preventative behavior, a growing infection can be contained.

In a new study of information dissemination, researchers discovered that not only vaccinating critical individuals, but also facilitating the circulation of health information to and from those critical individuals greatly helps in suppressing infectious diseases.

These findings and others will be presented at the 51st IEEE Conference on Decision and Control.

Source: Kansas State University

Young man using a computer photo by shutterstock.

 

APA Reference
Nauert, R. (2012). Can Social Media Prevent the Spread of Disease?. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 26, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/news/2012/11/28/can-social-media-prevent-the-spread-of-disease/48226.html