Influencing Public Health: Can Facebook Make Us Adopt Better Health Practices?


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Social Networks Rewired

Sometimes, current networks need to be “rewired,” which may involve directly linking some individuals with others.  When asked if the Alcoholics Anonymous buddy system was such a rewiring, Valente replied, “AA is a buddy  approach in that it provides a person with a support to contact whenever they  feel vulnerable to drinking.  This can also be done more formally in  schools and communities in which buddies are identified via network analysis so  that supports are those among people already directly or indirectly  connected. “

SparksPeople, for instance, connects individuals who want to lose weight with others with similar goals. Before joining the online community, many express a lack of support from “real” friends and family.

How to Discourage the Consumption of Fast Food? Photo by SteFou!

Valente notes that it is vital to know what type of approach would work best with different public health problems.  Regarding high school students, he states the need to “[b]uild behavior change interventions that explicitly account for  network structure. For example, middle- and high-school students often form into  groups that establish normative behaviors and pressures.  Some groups  emphasize sports and so are healthy physically but perhaps drink too much  alcohol whereas other groups focus on gaming and so are not very physically  active but eschew any type of substance use since it impairs their gaming  abilities, other groups may hang out at fast-food restaurants thus developing  poor eating habits. Different interventions are required for different groups  and in some cases there may be easily identified peer opinion leaders whereas in  others the intervention may need to be designed by the entire  group.”

Social Behaviors Online: Public Health

Valente has some reservations about using social media in the service of public health.  He states his “hesitation stems  from at least 3 factors: (1) it’s mediated, the communications are mediated via  the technology and face-to-face, personal interactions are more influential than mediated ones, (2) it is noisy, there are lots of social media choices and lots  of social media messages, (3) as a society we are getting good at ignoring the  constant bombardment of advertising and messaging.”

With the social media world blossoming, it is more relevant than ever to learn how to use social networks to encourage better public health.  Perhaps using more personal social media, such as Facebook, will prove to be the most successful. Or, maybe talking face-to-face with your friend is the best way to get her to lay off the french fries.


Valente, T. W. Network Interventions. (2012). Science. Vol. 337. Accessed July 5, 2012.

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