New Study Considers Challenges and Opportunities in Using Online Social Networks for Health

flickr: Paul H

A group of researchers from University of Michigan and Intel teamed up to study why and how people share health information online.

In this study, participants used online health communities (OHCs) and Facebook for support, motivation, accountability, and advice in relation to weight loss and diabetes management. Even though the study was geared toward software designers, one of the findings is particularly helpful to those of us who design social media strategies for healthcare.

Although participants in the study sought out support, motivation, accountability and advice, they often experienced tension between “impression management” and their health goals. In other words, the participants wanted to share certain information with some people in their network, but not others. They sought to “strike a balance between sharing information related to specific needs and the desire to manage self-presentation.”

One participant commented: “There are some people I wouldn’t care about if they saw [posts I might make about health on Facebook] but I’ve got people, you know, from my high school that I am friends with that I haven’t talked to in 25 years. And I have no desire for them to know about my weight issues or weight status.”

Yet other participants found that integrating the OHC connection with online social networks like Facebook helped them build stronger ties. One participant said, “With some of these [people from SparkPeople] that I see on Facebook too, our friendships are tighter because we communicate both ways. So you know the more you communicate with somebody the closer you get.”

As technology enables hospitals to create their own networks and add automatic connections to Facebook, Twitter and other social network sites, we need to recognize the tension our patients feel between their desire to seek support for their health goals and the desire to manage their self presentation. How can we design our social media strategies to help patients do both?

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