Social media could be critical to a healthy society
Social media may become the most important tool in promoting good health in Australia if a University of Adelaide study can demonstrate its effectiveness.
University researchers are about to embark on a two-year study in conjunction with the Lyell McEwin Hospital in Adelaide's northern suburbs to ascertain how social networks and new communication technologies influence behaviour relating to health.
Chief investigator Dr Andrew Skuse will lead a team of University of Adelaide health and social media experts working with pregnant women and new mothers from socially disadvantaged areas.
"The nature and use of media is changing rapidly," says Dr Skuse, a social anthropologist.
"Mobile technologies and social media applications such as Facebook and Twitter are revolutionising the way people stay in touch, organise their lives and also deal with their problems.
"In a health context, existing research tells us that traditional methods of communication - such as leaflets, posters and teaching - seldom lead to positive health outcomes.
"The notion that applications such as Facebook could help disadvantaged mothers raise healthier babies is exciting and a 21st century research challenge," says Dr Skuse.
The first phase of the project, to be launched in December, will determine preferred media use among 80 pregnant women and new mothers in the Lyell McEwin Hospital.
Once that is established, hospital staff will tailor specific health messages to individual patients according to their preferred method of communication. These messages will relay information on diet and lifestyle that is critical to ensuring healthy birth weights.
"Low birth weight is a significant contributory factor to health problems in later life," says Associate Professor Vicki Clifton, a member of the research project. "If we can develop a communication package which prevents this, the benefits will be immeasurable."
The study will explore the most effective ways to use health reminders - for example, to take medication or attend appointments - as well as convey health information concerning the adoption of healthy lifestyles and avoidance of risky behaviours such as smoking, alcohol and drug abuse.
Dr Mike Wilmore, Head of the Discipline of Media at the University of Adelaide, says SMS messaging is particularly good for reminders, while social media works well with peer groups.
"YouTube and video sharing will be useful in communicating with people who are less literate and more highly geared to audio-visual messaging. Also, if we are dealing with different cultures, we can use translation tools with video messaging," Dr Wilmore says.
The team expects the study to show significant cost savings in using social media to transmit critical health messages. Findings from the study will be adopted in other health contexts.
Other researchers involved in the project include Dr Sal Humphreys and Dr Dean Bruton.