July 6, 2012
Social Networks Influence Personal Health Decisions
Connie K. Ho for redOrbit.com — Your Universe Online
Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest are just a few of the social media networks that have become popular in the past few years. Social media networks allow individuals to share photos, stories, video, and other forms of communication with friends and family. Investigators have studied how social media has become integrated in people´s daily lives. In particular, researchers from the University of Southern California (USC) recently found that social networks can stimulate changes in the health behavior of individuals.
With the project, the team of public health researchers was inspired to study the “science” behind social influence. They believe that an understanding of online and face-to-face interactions can improve disease prevention and help promote public health issues. The researchers concluded that it is necessary to understand a group´s social structure and social dynamics to understand the factors that influence a group member´s decision making.
"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," explained Thomas W. Valente, professor of preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, in a prepared statement. "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."
In the project, Valente collected a variety of methods that public health advocates utilize to encourage changes in behavior. Through his research, he identified why particular methods are more effective than others for certain situations like quitting smoking or preventing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.
With 24 interventions identified for researchers to utilize, Valente believes that it is important to create a stronger framework that can help choose the tactics that could be most effective. Different methods can have different results based on the social network. For example, word-of-mouth can spread news and create groups of similar friends.
"Existing evidence indicates that network interventions are quite effective," Valente, whose research focuses on social networks and influence, commented in the statement. "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 concludes that, even though behavioral marketing has been used in business, it can be applied in the public health sector. He believes that new media tools like Facebook and Twitter have helped in the collection of data and the spread of information. In particular, Facebook and friends can impact a person´s decision making and health behavior. Valente´s research project is supported by a National Institutes of Health grant, which was under the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
The findings are highlighted in the July 6 edition of peer-reviewed journal Science.