A new area of health research seeks to determine how social media and information technology can best be used to prevent disease and promote general health.
Experts from University of Southern California believe the answer is complex as a variety of methods must be used to motivate healthy behaviors. That is the approach, whether face-to-face or online, depends upon the group and the circumstance.
The social structure of the group and the dynamics of influence at play affect the success of all health promotion strategies, said Thomas W. Valente, Ph.D., professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.
“If I want to go into a high school and change physical activity or other obesity behaviors, I have to understand there are cliques and subgroups of students that exhibit different risks,” Valente said.
“I would design different interventions for the different groups. We constantly are concerned about how ineffective our interventions are — this is a big reason why those interventions are not working.
“We can do a much better job promoting healthy behaviors if we understand the social network contexts and design these interventions with those cues in mind.”
Valente believes a new approach for public health includes using social networks to stimulate changes in behavior. However, the method must be matched to the group and particular situations.
His discussion of this approach appears in the peer-reviewed journal Science, one of the foremost outlets for scientific news, commentary and research.
Customizing interventions to groups and respective situations means that many approaches are required. In the article, Valente identifies 24 approaches, each with at least several variations , noting that a more robust framework is needed for deciding which tactics are best used in particular settings.
Word-of-mouth interventions, for example, depend on the social network to succeed. In some cases, word of mouth is used to spread the word and in other cases to create groups of like-minded friends.
“Existing evidence indicates that network interventions are quite effective,” Valente writes. “Yet, the science of how networks can be used to accelerate behavior change and improve organizational performance is still in its infancy. Research is clearly needed to compare different network interventions to determine which are optimal under what circumstances.”
Valente believes the public health sector can benefit from using information networks such as Facebook and Twitter to collect data and spread health information among various populations.