Facebook isn’t all babies, holiday snaps and adverts – new study shows it could help prevent HIV
Facebook does a great job of influencing consumers, provoking vacation envy and providing fantastic oh god no-esque entertainment in the form of public break ups and meltdowns, but is it contributing anything of real value to society?
It certainly has the potential to. A new study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine shows that targeted interventions launched via Facebook groups are an effective way to communicate information around HIV testing and safe sex practices.
The study recruited 112 men with Facebook accounts, who have sex with men, in the Los Angeles area. The men were randomly assigned to one of two groups – a HIV intervention group or a general health group (the control group). ‘Peer leaders’ communicated with the participants via messages, chats and wall posts, with the control group receiving general information, and the intervention group receiving information about HIV prevention and testing. Throughout the study, all participants were offered the opportunity to get an at-home HIV test.
In the event, 44% (25 out of 57) intervention members requested a testing kit, compared to 20% (11 of 55) in the control group.
In light of these results, lead study author Sean Young told Slate that: “There is a lot of excitement about the possibility of using technologies, big data, and mHealth to improve health outcomes and change behavior. We validated that our approach combining behavioral science and social media can create sustainable health behavior change.”
Of course, it’s not Facebook per se that leads to the behaviour change, rather the way it delivers the relevant information: people are less likely to seek out a pamphlet on sexual health than they are prepared to read about it on the screen they’re already looking at.
But according to Young, surprisingly little research has gone into the effects of social media on long-term behavior change. However, there are at least two notable large-scale examples that support his team’s findings.
Firstly, May 2012 saw an enormous rise in the number of individuals registering for organ donation programs after Facebook introduced an option to allow people to add donor status to their timelines. California alone witnessed a 700% increase in the number of registrants compared to a typical day.
Then, in September last year a study found that a simple banner message, displayed at the top of Facebook newsfeeds, prompted an additional 340,000 people to vote in the US Congressional elections.
The results from the HIV prevention study are not as strong as these two examples, but they nonetheless demonstrate a positive correlation between social media and genuine behavior change. More research is certainly needed to realise the full potential of this area.