[This post was written by Catherine Grodensky, MPH. Catherine is manager of the UNC Center for AIDS Research Social and Behavioral Sciences Research Core]
Researchers at UNC have been making news lately for their work using social media to enhance sexual health and disease prevention. Lisa Hightow-Weidman created and is studying the effectiveness of a web-based platform to promote healthy sexual norms and testing, while Peter Leone is experimenting with Facebook for partner notification among those newly diagnosed with HIV.
Public health experts are looking to the business world, which has already successfully harnessed the power of social media to influence purchasing behavior. The challenge of social media is that it’s radically different from the traditional health communication methods that we’ve become comfortable with.
As with all social media communications, health messages delivered through these platforms are not simple, one-way channels; rather, they involve–or have the potential to involve–response, dialogue, and adaptation/expansion. Furthermore, social media is at its most powerful when the messages are of personal interest to its users [Ed: this isn't limited to social media, but might be more true with social media], whose decision to circulate or engage with a message will greatly influence its reach.
Research such as that done by Hightow-Weidman and Leone is essential to begin the process of determining what social media can do (e.g., influence social norms, facilitate interpersonal contact and communication), what it might not be able do as well (e.g., track sexual behavior and STI diagnoses), and how it can reach tech-savvy populations (i.e. young people, who account for the majority of new HIV and STI diagnoses). As with all other tools for influencing health behavior change, social media has its strengths and weaknesses. UNC is fortunate to have leaders in the field who can explore those factors and harness them for sexual health.