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28 April 2013
Facebook interests could be used to target health interventions

According to researchers, online social networks like Facebook represent a new low-cost method for investigating health and targeting interventions. A study detailing the idea, by researchers at Boston Children's Hospital, appears in the journal PLOS ONE.

Lead researcher Rumi Chunara said the higher the percentage of people in a city, town or neighborhood with Facebook interests suggesting a healthy, active lifestyle, the lower that area's obesity rate. At the same time, areas with a large percentage of Facebook users with television-related interests tend to have higher rates of obesity.

Chunara suggests that knowledge of people's online interests within geographic areas may help public health researchers predict, track and map obesity rates down to the neighborhood level, while offering an opportunity to design targeted online interventions aimed at reducing obesity rates.

To connect the dots between Facebook interests and obesity, the researchers obtained aggregated Facebook user interest data - what users post to their timeline, "like" and share with others on Facebook - from users nationally and just within New York City. They then compared the percentages of users interested in healthy activities or television with data from two telephone-based health surveys.

The comparison revealed close geographic relationships between Facebook interests and obesity rates. Specifically, obesity rates were 12 percent lower in the location in the United States where the highest percentage of Facebook users expressing activity-related interests compared that in the location with the lowest percentage. The same correlation was reflected in the New York City neighborhood data as well, showing that the approach can scale from national- to local-level data.

"The data show that in places where Facebook users have more activity-related interests, there is a lower prevalence of obesity and overweight," said Chunara. "They reveal how social media data can augment public health surveillance by giving public health researchers access to population-level information that they can't otherwise get."

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Source: Boston Children's Hospital

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