Social Media and the Science of Health Behavior

Online technologies allow researchers to study the adoption of behaviors—and develop strategies for promoting healthy ones.

Social networks influence health behaviors—from smoking and diet adherence to preventative screening and exercise habits. Through the web, individuals can find support, and share and receive information via online networks. Social technologies also offer new opportunities for health researchers through two kinds of networks—open forms, such as Facebook and Twitter; and “internationally designed” online health communities that allow for collecting regular, reliable data on health activities and behaviors.

Centola describes how emerging social technologies overcome some of the limitations faced by previous methods of social and behavioral research, giving researchers the opportunity to conduct large-scale randomized controlled trials of behavioral influence in social networks. He details five features of social media:

  1. scale
  2. measurement
  3. behavioral fidelity
  4. structural control
  5. reproducibility that make it ideal for behavioral research

The author goes on to describe a case study of one online network, “The Healthy Lifestyle Network,” and how recruited participants were randomized into strong-tie networks and weak-tie networks to receive information about new health behaviors and the network participants’ adoptions. The results of six independent trials were “surprisingly clear.” Some 54 percent of participants adopted the behavior in strong, clustered social networks, compared to 38 percent in randomized weak-tie networks.

“The results from the Healthy Lifestyle Network study,” he writes “suggest not only that social networks can be structured to promote the spread of behavior, but that the methodology of using intentionally designed online communities may be a general means for investigating strategies for promoting healthy behaviors.”