While it was invented to facilitate sharing pictures of cats, it turns out social media has all sorts of other applications. Some of the most useful are in health care, where social media can help
individuals change unhealthy behaviors by letting them participate in online support groups with other people dealing with the same issue.
In the latest example, a new study from the
University of Georgia suggests that social media can help with smoking cessation.
The study, with the snappy title “Participating in Health Issue-Specific Social Networking
Sites to Quit Smoking: How Does Online Social Interconnectedness Influence Smoking Cessation Self-Efficacy,” published in the September 2013 issue of Journal of Communication, surveyed 252 users
of Web sites and forums devoted to health topics, including iVillage, Why Quit, and Inspire.
Researchers found that successful smoking cessation increased in correlation with participation
in these online communities. Over time, users built a shared identity, established a sense of trust, and came to view smoking cessation as a communal enterprise, supporting each other and reinforcing
goals and methods.
Crucially, participants also found it easier to maintain abstinence from tobacco in the long term, including during “trigger” situations, for example,
when they are having a drink or under stress. Thus, the psychological benefit of the group dynamic persisted even when the individual was “away” from the virtual group.
noted, research has already established the social media can help change other unhealthy habits. In January 2013, study by researchers at the University of South Carolina’s Arnold School of
Public Health found that individuals may benefit from group weight-loss programs on Twitter, in which participants post details of their progress and encourage each other in the struggle to shed
pounds. The study found that for every 10 Twitter posts, participants achieved an additional 0.5% weight loss.
In December 2012, the American Heart Association released a statement
noting that social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter can help reduce childhood obesity. AHA analyzed eight different trials of interventions using social media in combination with exercise and
nutrition programs and found they demonstrated the ability to reduce weight, dietary fat and body mass index, and increase exercise among participants.
Studies from the Netherlands
have suggested that niche social networks can help patients and doctors improve the treatment of chronic disease by encouraging patients to interact with doctors and adhere to care regimens.