In a world where many engage in social media daily and frequently, it is important to learn how public health intersects with these powerful communication platforms. The Promoting Research in Social Media (PRISM) Health Symposium hosted by UCSF November 2020, hosted many talented researchers and panelists from various institutions, who shared their innovative work relating to social media and health research.
Researchers who conduct their work in areas outside the United States emphasized the importance of choosing an adequate social media platform for the study population. For example, researchers from Texas A&M University conducted a social media based intervention in China using a Chinese messaging app, WeChat, to provide emotional support to adults living with HIV who are at high risk of depression. Because information delivery varies by location, it is critical for researchers to design an intervention with community engagement, to provide the most appropriate method of communication for the study population. Another study in Kenya, by researchers from University of Washington, set out to have a social media intervention to emotionally support youth living with HIV. They determined that mobile health was an appropriate way to address health inequities in this area, because phones are affordable and easily attainable, even for youth. Whatsapp, a similar messaging platform like WeChat, was used to support the mental health of HIV positive youth and also to educate them on topics like sex education and medication treatments. Findings from the study in Kenya were that social media are an organic way that interactions occur among adolescents, alluding to the fact that social media can be a suitable way for youth to find community, especially those pertaining to marginalized groups.
Another panelist explored the difference between two different social media platforms and found that WeChat was more commonly used for networking and socializing while Sina Weibo, another Chinese app, was used by individuals seeking information regarding public health. This may indicate that individuals use certain platforms for specific reasons.
In recent years there has been a trend in social media platforms being a form of support for adolescents. A panelist from University of Pittsburgh shared that memes are one way that adolescents feel comfortable about opening up about their feelings. Could this be a tactic to support adolescents’ mental health?
As previously mentioned, social media apps are an advantageous way to reach a wide array of audiences. One researcher at Drexel University who is creatively looking to create an online mental health support service for Black men, believes social media is a good way to reach this group of individuals who are not likely to seek out in-person or face-to-face services. As social media continues to evolve, it may be a more common intervention tool to support people of color who struggle with mental health. Because there are a lot of flaws in existing services which were not created for people of color, this may give rise to more non-traditional approaches, thus informal avenues like social media.
Common themes at PRISM included supporting mental health for underrepresented and historically marginalized/stigmatized communities and exploring what campaigns worked and which didn’t for COVID-19. Social media is a very powerful tool if utilized properly, as it can reach many quickly. Large databases from social media platforms are encouraged to be explored, as they can be very telling of trends among certain age groups. Social media interventions can look many ways depending on the efforts, but nevertheless, it can be a very affordable and powerful tool.
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