Social Media and the Science of Health Behavior
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Social influences are a primary factor in the adoption of health behaviors.1,2 Compliance with diet and nutrition programs, adherence to preventive screening recommendations, and maintenance of exercise routines all can depend on having contact with friends and family who also engage in these behaviors. In addition to a great deal of literature on peer effects,3 recent studies of large network data sets have made important advances in our understanding of how social networks influence the collective dynamics of health behavior.4,5 Research has shown that social influences can affect collective health outcomes ranging from epidemic obesity to smoking behaviors, which have important consequences both for theoretical models of social epidemiology and for the practical design of interventions and treatment strategies.6,7 These findings have direct implications for research aimed at understanding how social influences on dieting, exercising, medication use, and getting screenings can impact behavior change affecting cardiovascular disease. The large number of health domains affected by recent research on the spread of behaviors has made social diffusion a topic of growing interest for an increasing variety of researchers and practitioners who are concerned with understanding the social dimensions of health. This article discusses the development of new methods that use social media to study these health dynamics.
Although there is widespread theoretical and practical interest in understanding how social influences affect health-related behaviors, empirical studies of the social dynamics of health face important methodological challenges. Large observational studies of population health have faced the limitation that they are unable to address problems of causal identification.8,9 Extant studies have been able to show conclusively that health-related traits such as smoking5 and weight gain4 correlate with social ties in a network, yet the data do not provide a …