Concerns about the negative impacts of social media have dominated public debate however recent studies show there are clear health benefits to being online and connected. By Joanna Egan.
New technologies are changing the way we communicate. Social media (including email, blogs, online forums and social networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Flikr, Youtube and LinkedIn) allow us to share information and connect with other people despite geographic and physical barriers.
Australians are embracing these technologies with gusto. More than 62 per cent of us regularly visit social media sites, and Australians under the age of 25 are ranked as the world's most prolific users – about 97 per cent of 16 and 17 year olds regularly login to update their profiles, post messages and make comments.
Despite these trends, recent public debate has tended to focus on the risks of social media. These include cyber-bullying, threats from sexual predators, the mismanagement of personal information, the negative impact inappropriate posts and photos can have in the future, and the emphasis some sites place on friend counts, which can lead to popularity contests, low-self esteem, anxiety and depression. Social media have also been criticised for encouraging sedentary behaviour and compromising the development and maintenance of friendships made during face-to-face interactions. Despite these issues, research shows social media offer users a number of clear health benefits.
How do social media encourage health and wellbeing?
1) They facilitate social interaction
It is widely known that having regular, positive social interaction encourages health and wellbeing. Social media can help users strengthen their existing friendships and encourage the development of new, online relationships. In the past, these were considered weaker than traditional face-to-face friendships however current research shows they can be important forms of socialisation, particularly for individuals who are more vulnerable to isolation such as new mums, elderly people, and people with chronic illnesses or disabilities.
Australian researchers recently examined social media's potential for overcoming isolation in people aged in their 80s and 90s. Social isolation can lead to a range of physical and mental health problems and has become a major health concern for elderly people, many of whom have limited social contact due to the absence of family or friends, or due to health problems and frailty, which can restrict their opportunities for interaction. The study involved a group of participants and their carers using a purpose-built online application to exchange photographs and messages. After ten weeks of using the application, participants felt more connected and less isolated. They developed a shared language, which encouraged feelings of belonging and inclusion.
2) They build communities
Social media can foster a strong sense of community among users. Online forums and content-sharing sites connect people with shared interests and can be a valuable source of support, particularly for people who feel dissociated due to illness or health conditions. Logging in to an online community to discuss symptoms and treatments, share anecdotal accounts or seek advice and support from others can be important. It can encourage feelings of belonging and acceptance, and this, in turn, can promote resilience, which can help users cope with stressful situations in their daily lives.
An online community for parents of multiple births, for example, is currently providing support to more than 500 Queensland mothers. The community was set up as a Facebook page by Brisbane-based mother of twins Melissa Kirkwood, and has become a place where mothers can share advice and offload their stresses to other parents who understand their experience.
Online networking sites benefit people who encounter practical difficulties communicating in a face-to-face environment. Children with serious illnesses, chronic health conditions or disabilities, for example, often experience disruptions in their everyday lives due to time spent in hospital or away from school. This can upset their social routines and affect their emotional wellbeing. As a response to this, the Starlight Children's Foundation established Livewire, a health-networking site for young people (aged from 11 to 20) with serious illnesses or disabilities, and their families. The site is a safe online space where members can connect, share experiences and interact. The site is closely monitored by doctors, who recommend websites for information about particular conditions, and online conversation is moderated. Research shows that children who use the site receive more social support, are more resilient and feel an increased sense of belonging to a community than children who don't participate. They have increased illness-specific knowledge and reduced levels of loneliness and depression.
3) They normalise help-seeking behaviour
Often people are reluctant to talk to their families or friends about their health concerns. Because many of the traditional barriers to seeking help are reduced in an online setting, we're increasingly turning to the internet for health advice. Young people in particular are likely to look online for information about topics such as acne treatments, menstruation facts, contraception advice and discussions about sexual or mental health, before they speak to a GP or counsellor. Although this can be risky because there is a lot of inaccurate, unhealthy or intolerant information online (see page 7, Managing the risks), it can also be empowering and can allow us to feel in control of the health choices we make.
Online youth mental health service, ReachOut.com, encourages people aged from 15 to 24 to use web-based technologies to take control of their mental health and wellbeing. The health-networking site comprises a chat room and an information bank that is made up of fact sheets and multimedia resources such as videos, podcasts and interviews. It includes an anonymous forum where young people can connect, share their stories and experiences and offer each other strategies for overcoming difficult life situations. It allows them to sign up for an SMS service so they can receive daily advice and motivational messages, and aims to provide them with the skills and knowledge they need to manage their own health. The service reduces barriers to help seeking by providing information, support and a referral service, and by building young people's confidence to vocalise their problems.
4) They inspire healthy lifestyle changes
Many people use social media as a motivational tool to help them achieve health goals such as quitting smoking, lowering their blood pressure or cholesterol, losing weight or starting an exercise plan. By announcing a goal via social media, and then posting regular updates, people become accountable to others and are more likely to achieve what they set out to do. Sharing their progress with a network of support people who provide feedback and encouragement can help people stay focused. It also allows them to inspire others with their experiences, which can create a culture of healthy living.
Health promotion experts in South Australia are working towards using social media to foster an anti-smoking culture among young people. They are developing an evidence-based website that will feature facts about smoking and the tobacco industry, where teenagers will be given the opportunity to ask questions and engage in online discussions. Participants' comments will be posted on social media sites for their peers to view, and visitors to the website will be encouraged to use Facebook and Twitter to declare they don't smoke and won't date anyone who smokes. Researchers anticipate the campaign will promote an anti-smoking culture that uses peer pressure to stop teenagers from taking up smoking.
5) They aid medical research
Medical professionals use social-networking sites to collect data and recruit participants for health studies. In recent years, young women have been underrepresented in comprehensive, population-based health studies because it is difficult to maintain contact with them using traditional methods. This makes their recruitment into studies difficult, and lowers their retention rates. Researchers recently identified social media as an effective tool for engaging young women in health research.
A study measuring the effectiveness of the comprehensive Australian human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine program was recently conducted in Victoria. The recruitment strategy involved targeted advertising on Facebook, where females aged from 18 to 25 were invited to sign up. On the study's Facebook page, potential participants could click on a link that would direct them to a secure website where they could confidentially express their interest. More than 95 per cent of the study's participants were recruited this way. The women were asked to complete an online questionnaire and self-collect a vaginal swab so their suitability for the study could be assessed. The benefit of this recruitment strategy was two-fold: social media provided an effective means of reaching the target demographic, and it meant the costs involved in advertising the study and recruiting participants were reduced.
Managing online risks
It is important to protect yourself from online threats and develop the skills to critically analyse online content. You should avoid uploading personal information that can identify you in the real world and remember that online information is not an alternative to face-to-face medical consultation. When searching for information online, users should look for evidence-based, unbiased resources produced by credible organisations. When seeking information or joining online support communities, it is advisable to steer clear of un-moderated forums and instead look for discussion groups that are run with the input of health professionals. Look for sites with HONcode certification – this means they follow an ethical code and deliver objective, transparent information.
Last updated: September 2012
© Women's Health Queensland Wide Inc. This article was written by Joanna Egan and reviewed by the Women's Health Queensland Wide editorial committee. It was published in Health Journey Issue 2 2012.