By Aline Holzwarth
Social media is everywhere, and shows no signs of slowing down. There are now more monthly active Facebook users in the world than there are households owning a television set. Any product experiencing this degree of success is bound to experience backlash, and it’s no surprise to see headlines touting the dangers of social media. The New York Times warns us of systemic misinformation; prominent researchers like Leslie John of Harvard outline the state of personal data collection by companies of their consumers, and how we are lured into divulging our secrets to the strangest of strangers — not only by marketers, but even by our own minds. It’s not a rosy picture being painted of the networks that connect our online selves.
Please understand — it’s not my intention to downplay any of the very real concerns about the risks that social media exposes us to, nor the responsibility of industry to step up its game. (Indeed, I share the concerns of the New York Times and Leslie John, and I’ve even written with Dan Ariely about how organizations can weigh the tradeoffs between privacy and transparency to make better decisions for and with their constituents.) However, it is entirely my intention to argue that, still, it is possible to use social media for good. Not only possible, but advisable. I’d like to propose two things: First, that there is a right and wrong way to use social media more generally, and second, that we can harness the power of social media to support our health goals.
How to do social media right
Social media affects you negatively when it displaces human interaction, but positively when it supplements real-world interactions.
You may have heard that social media is leading the planet into a global depression, causing people everywhere to pick up a newfound form of antisociality where they no longer remember how to interact with other human beings. But if social media is bringing you down, you’re probably not doing it right. Fortunately, there is a pretty simple formula for getting it right. Recent research shows that when you use social media to deepen existing offline relationships or make new offline friends, it leads to decreased loneliness (Nowland, Necka & Cacioppo, 2017) and increased sociability (Waytz & Gray, 2018), whereas when you use social media as escapism, in the place of offline relationships, it leads to greater loneliness and decreased sociability. In other words, social media affects you negatively when it displaces human interaction, but positively when it supplements real-world interactions. If you hope to reap the social benefits of social media, make sure that your relationships are primarily grounded in the real world. Not to mention, too much of anything can backfire; use the “stop after 30 minutes” heuristic to limit your time on social media each day.
That’s all good and well, but what if you can use social media in even more useful ways? What if you can use social media for your health?
How to use social media to support your health goals
I used my social network to hold myself accountable and reach my health goal.
As I was preparing, physically and mentally, for a 5-mile race a while back, I decided to share it with others. I posted my plan on Twitter, not to show off (trust me, I barely made it to the finish line), but to hold myself accountable. I knew that by declaring my goal to the wide world of Twitter, I wouldn’t be able to back out of the race. I leveraged my social network to hold myself to my health goal, ensuring that I not only showed up on race day, but also that I continued training for it in the months leading up to it. I thought that if I shared my plan on social media, I’d be more likely to stick to it.
And research confirms this intuition. A meta-analysis of interventions using social networking sites showed that social media interventions were indeed effective at changing health behaviors (Laranjo et al., 2014). Good news! Turns out, social media can be used to promote health behaviors (and not just spread hate and lies).
Social media in Pattern Health
How to use social media to strengthen your relationships and achieve your health goals:
Use it to enhance — not substitute — offline relationships
Limit your usage to 30 minutes a day
Announce your health goals publicly to hold yourself accountable
Share your health activity over time to keep your networks in the loop on your progress
At Pattern Health, we’ve used social media to promote health behaviors among our users, and we’ve done this in a few different ways. The simplest way that we leverage social media for good is by allowing patients to share their commitment to their health plan, or pattern, on Facebook. This is a simple way of declaring that they are dedicated to sticking to their plan.
And we’ve also experimented with other versions of using social media to help people reach their health goals. A one-time commitment (such as sharing one’s commitment to their pattern on Facebook) can be an effective way of declaring a commitment, but the effect of this single commitment may disappear over time. Imagine that you not only share your commitment to your plan as a whole, but you also share your activity over time such that your networks are kept in the loop on your progress. On any given day, your network may learn that you succeeded at reaching your step goal, or you failed to take your medication. And this could just be the motivation you need to make sure you get in your steps or take your meds on time.
We tested this version of daily sharing in a 7-week pilot study where we asked participants to opt in to sharing their activity for a few health behaviors on Facebook each day. And we found that it worked! For example, participants who shared their medication-taking progress on Facebook had much higher adherence to their twice-daily “medication” regimen (which, in this case, was a bitter-tasting multivitamin) than those who did not share on Facebook. As you can see in the graph below, Facebook sharing led to much higher adherence over the course of the study than those who kept their health behaviors to themselves.
As humans, we are inherently social animals. We care what others think about us, and want to make sure our networks think of us positively. This social incentive can get us to behave in all sorts of ways, and social networks can serve as a vehicle to transmit this information. So, you ask, can social media be used for good instead of evil? We certainly think so.
Nowland, R., Necka, E., & Cacioppo, J. (2017). Loneliness and social internet use: Pathways to reconnection in a digital world? Perspectives on Psychological Science. 13, 70-87.
Waytz, A. & Gray, K. (2018). Does Online Technology Make Us More or Less Sociable? A Preliminary Review and Call for Research. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13(4), 473 - 491.
Laranjo, L., Arguel, A., Neves, A. L., Gallagher, A. M., Kaplan, R., Mortimer, N., Mendes, A. & Lau, A. (2014). The influence of social networking sites on health behavior change: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association, 22(1), 243-256.
About the author
Aline HolzwarthHead of Behavioral Science
Aline Holzwarth is an applied behavioral scientist, primarily focusing on digital health research and scientifically informed product design. She is Head of Behavioral Science at Pattern Health, an evidence-based connected care platform that leverages behavioral science to help patients stick to their care plans. She also co-founded the Behavior Shop, a behavioral science advisory company, and holds an appointment as Principal of the Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke University, an applied behavioral science lab that helps people be happier, healthier and wealthier, at home and abroad.