Wednesday, 10 July 2013

Facebook: A new tool in eating disorder analysis?

New research is showing the potential of social media websites like Facebook in regards to the prediction of health issues.

A recent study led by scientists from the Boston Children’s Hospital has given new attention to the possibility of using such a widespread social media platform in a medical and scientific sense.

The use of geo-tagged user data from Facebook seems to show that knowledge of a person’s online activity on a regional basis can help experts predict obesity, eating disorders and other health related issues on increasingly small scales. The possibilities of mapping the potential and current levels of obesity on a neighbourhood scale, for instance, is a very exciting prospect for professionals tasked with lowering such rates.

Traditionally, achieving such results has been difficult in several ways. Cost is, as we all know, a primary concern when planning and undertaking any medical research or study. The fact that Facebook is such a widespread and open platform gives researchers a unique opportunity to analyse this data for the betterment of communities and individuals. The problem of sample size is also lesser, with untold millions using Facebook in current days, often to the point where it is feasible to except an entire community to be representable through the social media platform.

The researchers involved in this study are well aware of these benefits; Brownstein, involved in running the computational epidemiology section within CHIP (the runners of this study) clearly understands these possibilities, saying that “Online social networks like Facebook represent a new high-value, low-cost data stream for looking at health at a population level. The tight correlation between Facebook users' interests and obesity data suggest that this kind of social network analysis could help generate real-time estimates of obesity levels in an area, help target public health campaigns that would promote healthy behaviour change, and assess the success of those campaigns."

With Facebook users that ‘like’ sports or activity related pages shown to be up to 12% lower in terms of obesity rates, there is the great possibility of low cost data being available for researchers in a truly large scale.

This said, the issue of privacy and attainment of this data may prove an issue, with Internet privacy an incredibly hot topic amongst net users at present. It remains to be seen how this gold mine of data can be used fairly and openly amongst researchers to improve the quality of life of those they aim to understand better.  Brownstein concludes that this study “reveal(s) how social media data can augment public health surveillance by giving public health researchers access to population-level information that they can't otherwise get."

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