ideas, innovations and apps for social work in the age of smartphones and social media 

Use Facebook To Prevent Obesity?

A new study by Boston Children’s Hospital researchers suggests that Facebook interests could help predict, track and map obesity. Here is the abstract of the article:

Assessing the Online Social Environment for Surveillance of Obesity Prevalence


Understanding the social environmental around obesity has been limited by available data. One promising approach used to bridge similar gaps elsewhere is to use passively generated digital data.


This article explores the relationship between online social environment via web-based social networks and population obesity prevalence.


We performed a cross-sectional study using linear regression and cross validation to measure the relationship and predictive performance of user interests on the online social network Facebook to obesity prevalence in metros across the United States of America (USA) and neighborhoods within New York City (NYC). The outcomes, proportion of obese and/or overweight population in USA metros and NYC neighborhoods, were obtained via the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance and NYC EpiQuery systems. Predictors were geographically specific proportion of users with activity-related and sedentary-related interests on Facebook.


Prevalence of activity-related interests and obesity in the USA.

Prevalence of activity-related interests and obesity in the USA.

Higher proportion of the population with activity-related interests on Facebook was associated with a significant 12.0% (95% Confidence Interval (CI) 11.9 to 12.1) lower predicted prevalence of obese and/or overweight people across USA metros and 7.2% (95% CI: 6.8 to 7.7) across NYC neighborhoods. Conversely, greater proportion of the population with interest in television was associated with higher prevalence of obese and/or overweight people of 3.9% (95% CI: 3.7 to 4.0) (USA) and 27.5% (95% CI: 27.1 to 27.9, significant) (NYC). For activity-interests and national obesity outcomes, the average root mean square prediction error from 10-fold cross validation was comparable to the average root mean square error of a model developed using the entire data set.


Activity-related interests across the USA and sedentary-related interests across NYC were significantly associated with obesity prevalence. Further research is needed to understand how the online social environment relates to health outcomes and how it can be used to identify or target interventions.

What does this mean for professionals in social work and/or health care? Steven Shie – digital media strategist at Chamberlain Healthcare Public Relations – has an answer. In his post at HealthWorks Collective he writes:

For healthcare marketers, the most important value of Facebook is its super power to target: users can be identified by specific demographic characteristics, geographic information and interests, offering marketers effective data to reach relevant audiences via a variety of Facebook tactics. A similar approach should be adopted by public health workers. With findings from researchers like Chumara, interventions can be customized and precisely delivered via Facebook. For example, public health workers can use “Facebook Ads,” or “Sponsored Stories” that address obesity preventions to reach communities at high risk of obesity. Additionally, all Facebook activities can be proactively monitored in real-time, providing valuable feedback for public health workers to adjust interventions to maximize effects.



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Lutz Siemer

Lutz Siemer

Education, Research & Development in Social Work & IT After working as an alternative practitioner and psychotherapist in private practice for nearly ten years I stepped over to higher education in 2005. At Saxion University of Applied Sciences I lecture and do research and development in the area of Social Work, Psychology and IT. Currently I'm focussing on merging mobile technology and social work.

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