- Bethany Tennant PhD
- Michael Stellefson, PhD
- Beth Chaney, PhD
- Don J. Chaney, PhD
- Virginia Dodd, PhD
The Internet has changed the way people communicate and has become a powerful and important resource for health information. Today, 82% of U.S. adults use the Internet, and among those adults 80% have looked online for health related information at one time 1. Coinciding with the increase in Internet use is the use of social media for health information. Online communities, blogs, and social networking websites, such as Facebook and Twitter are examples of social media outlets that can be used to obtain health information.
This is especially exciting because social media for health information has great potential to benefit older adults who generally have the greatest burden on the healthcare system. Social media, or online platforms for participation, conversation, and community offers opportunities to impact elder health by keeping older patients with similar interests and health concerns connected and informed 2, 3. A cancer support group on Facebook can bring cancer patients and caregivers together to share ideas, concerns and support. Social media provides new prospects for health communication as well as potential opportunities to decrease health-related communication gaps and inequalities. For older adults, effectively using social media as a health communication strategy has the potential to address health disparities and may have important public health implications due to its low cost and wide reach 4.
While older adults lag behind all other groups in terms of social media use, there are increasing numbers of older adults gravitating towards social media, as evidenced by a recent report indicating use of social media use among Internet users 65 years and older increased 13% to 33% between 2009 and 2011. If older adults become empowered to use social media to obtain and evaluate health information, they may benefit from the social support and sense of empowerment that social media can provide. However, it has been noted that the full potential of the Internet and social media to support healthy aging has yet to be realized.
Despite the many potential benefits of using social media in public health, there are several disadvantages to using social media as a source for health information. These disatvantages include, but are not limited to; blind authorship, lack of source citation, and presentation of opinion as fact 5. Given that social media often allows for an open and unrestricted forum for health information sharing, there is increased risk for rapid dissemination of non-credible and potentially erroneous health information which can lead to confusion and misdiagnosis 2, 6.
Among the sample, older adults who did not use social media had better perceived health status than those who did use social media. This indicates that social media may be a good source of outreach and support for older adults with lower self-reported health status. However, data obtained in this study revealed no significant association between social media use and the presence of chronic disease. Additional research is needed to understand the benefits of online and social media health promotion programs and/or support groups that target older adults with low health status.
The internet, including social media, has the potential to improve health outcomes for older adults. Social media has become a leading communications platform and will likely continue to attract adult users across all segments of the population; therfore, it is important to understand the impact of social media on health information seeking in older adults. Much more research is still needed to understand the full influence of online health information seeking and social media on decision making and health behaviors in the older adults.
1 Fox, S. (2012). Pew Internet: Health. Retrieved from http://pewinternet.org/Commentary/2011/November/Pew-Internet-Health.aspx.
2 Chou, W.S., Hunt, Y.M., Beckjord E.B., Moser, R.P., & Hesse, B.W. (2009). Social media use in the United States: Implications for health communication. Journal of Medical Internet Research 11(4): e48. doi:10.2196/jmir.1249
6 Boulos, M.N.K. (2012). Using social media for improving health literacy. In: The solid facts – Health literacy: Enabling healthier decisions in the 21st century. Copenhagen, Denmark: World Health Organization Regional Office for Europe. Retrieved from: http://www.researchgate.net/publication/230616262_Using_social_media_for_improving_health_literacy
7 Fox, S., & Jones, S. (2009). The social life of health information. Retrieved from: http://www.pewinternet.org/~/media//Files/Reports/2009/PIP_Health_2009.pdf