Earlier this month, I wrote about how difficult it is for parents and doctors to discuss the topic of obesity with children and adolescents. The fact that this conversation should be taking place with so many young people is disheartening. Call it an epidemic or a public health crisis. Call it whatever you want, but there’s no denying that rates of childhood obesity have more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years, with nearly 1 in 3 American children being classified as overweight or obese.
Despite initiatives like Let’s Move, First Lady Michelle Obama’s initiative to eradicate the obesity crisis within a generation, more work is needed to reach and engage children and adolescents. To that end, a new study in the American Journal of Public Health, suggests that public health advocates and health communicators may find success by turning to social media—specifically Twitter. Noting that Twitter is popular among teenagers, including teenagers in lower-income families, the authors suggest that the social media platform may be able to prevent and treat childhood obesity.
To test their hypothesis, the authors examined Twitter users who used the hashtag #childhoodobesity, separating them into demographic groups and then assessing which groups may receive the greatest benefit from Twitter engagement.
The results: In June of this year, researchers tracked more than 1,000 instances of #childhoodobesity from nearly 600 unique Twitter users. What they found was that more individuals than organizations used the hashtag (65.6 percent versus 32.9 percent, respectively), suggesting that users are taking a personal interest in the subject—an interest that health communicators should seize.
Bottom line: Given that it seems a significant number of individuals are talking about the issue of childhood obesity on Twitter, conducting social media outreach through this platform may be an effective public health initiative.
The American Journal of Public Health study isn’t the only study to suggest that social media may be an effective way to address childhood obesity. A study in the journal Circulation from 2012 found that given that approximately 95 percent of 12- to 17-year olds have access to the Internet either at home or at school, health interventions involving social media may be an effective means to help children and adolescents fight obesity.
According to the study’s author, “Teenagers are texting and using Facebook and other social media as their primary communication with their peers, and we need to find out what factors can be incorporated into social media that will increase the effectiveness of these interventions to initiate and maintain weight loss in kids and adolescents.”
It’s clear that social media is a viable option for health communication outreach, but it’s also clear that health communication/public health initiatives can make greater use of this tactic. For more information on using social media for health communication, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Gateway to Health Communication & Social Marketing Practice page.
To read more about social media planning, read this blog post from fellow HealthComU blogger, Christine Senke.