UCSF Commentary: Tweet Your Way to Better Health

Study of Social Media Shows Potential to Convey Health Messages

Twitter and other social media should be better utilized to convey public health messages, especially to young adults, according to a new analysis by researchers at UC San Francisco.

The analysis focused on public conversations on the social media site Twitter around one health issue: indoor tanning beds, which are associated with an increased risk of skin cancer. The researchers assessed the frequency of Twitter mentions related to indoor tanning and tanning health risks during a two week period in 2013. During that timeframe, more than 154,000 tweets (English language) mentioned indoor tanning – amounting to 7.7 tweets per minute. But fewer than 10 percent mentioned any of the health risks, such as skin cancer, that have been linked to indoor tanning.

That offers a potentially valuable forum for conveying important health information directly to the people who might benefit the most from it, but the authors said further research is needed to explore whether that would be effective.   

The analysis will be published as an editorial letter in the July 12 issue of The Lancet. 

“The numbers are staggering,” said senior author Eleni Linos, MD, DrPH, an assistant professor in the UCSF Department of Dermatology. “With 500 million tweets sent each day and over 1 billion Facebook users, it is clear that social media platforms are the way to go for public health campaigns, especially those focused on young adults.”

Linos has previously published influential research on the harms of indoor tanning beds. The research found that indoor tanning beds can cause non-melanoma skin cancer, with the risk rising the earlier one starts tanning. Indoor tanning has already been established as a risk factor for malignant melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.

In their social media study, the researchers used a Twitter programming application to collect in real time all tweets that mentioned indoor tanning, tanning beds, tanning booths and tanning salons. During the study period in March and April 2013, more than 120,000 people posted at least one tweet about indoor tanning. Altogether, more than 113 million Twitter “followers” were potentially exposed to tweets about indoor tanning, the authors reported.

“Indoor tanning has reached alarming rates among young people,” said Linos. “And tanning beds account for hundreds of thousands of skin cancers each year. Through social media, we now have an opportunity to talk about these health risks directly with young people.”   

Co-authors include Mackenzie R. Wehner, a Doris Duke Research Fellow at UCSF; Mary-Margaret Chren, MD, professor of dermatology at UCSF; Melissa L. Shive, a medical student at UCSF; and Jack S. Resneck Jr., MD, associate professor and vice chair of the UCSF Department of Dermatology. 

UCSF is a leading university dedicated to promoting health worldwide through advanced biomedical research, graduate-level education in the life sciences and health professions, and excellence in patient care. It includes top-ranked graduate schools of dentistry, medicine, nursing and pharmacy, a graduate division with nationally renowned programs in basic, biomedical, translational and population sciences, as well as a preeminent biomedical research enterprise and two top-ranked hospitals, UCSF Medical Center and UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital San Francisco.