Looking for tips to avoid catching the flu virus this winter? Next time you’re on the Metro, you might want to sit next to the person browsing Twitter or Facebook. Why? Because adults who use Twitter or Facebook as sources of health information were more likely to get a flu shot than those who do not use the social media platforms, according to a new study from researchers at the University of Maryland School of Public Health.
Published in the journal Vaccine, the study explored how people use social media as a source of influenza health-related information and how it may influence their likelihood to take an influenza vaccine.
“With the growing influence of social media as a source of health information, both good and bad, and with troublingly low rates of vaccination among US adults, we are interested in understanding the relationship between Internet activity and vaccine behavior,” said Naheed Ahmed, a family science doctoral candidate in the University of Maryland School of Public Health and lead author of the study. “We found that social media use, specifically Twitter and Facebook as sources of health information, are predictors of getting an influenza vaccine.”
Influenza vaccination rates remain low in the U.S. at 37 percent among adults over 18, and inaccurate information about vaccines spread by a small, but vocal, anti-vaccine movement has led some Americans to forgo critical vaccines for themselves, and in some cases, their children, putting vulnerable populations at risk. Yet, public health campaigns on social media platforms may have the potential to increase influenza vaccination rates, and prevent influenza-related hospitalizations and deaths.
The nationally representative survey was conducted in 2015 with nearly 1500 White and African American adults. It included questions about influenza vaccination status, knowledge questions about how the influenza vaccine works, use of social media, beliefs regarding prevention and treatment of influenza, along with demographic variables including age, household income, education, race, sex, and health insurance status. Forty eight percent of them got the influenza vaccine in 2015.
While data analysis of participants’ social media habits and vaccine behaviors suggest that health information disseminated through social media platforms may shape vaccine uptake, the respondents did not perceive that social media played an important role in their decision to take the flu vaccine. The researchers suggest that this could be because individuals interested in staying healthy follow health-related news on social media platforms, and their motivation to stay informed may contribute to higher vaccination rates in combination with or separately from their use of social media as a source of health information. These findings may also reflect the complex factors that affect decision-making, such as social norms, patient-provider relationships, and risk perception.
“Ours is the first study to examine social media use and vaccine behavior, and we are interested in further exploring the potential of social media to encourage health promoting behaviors,” Ms. Ahmed said. “With more than two-thirds of the U.S. population using Facebook and almost a quarter using Twitter, we could be utilizing these platforms more to increase vaccination rates and to save lives.”
The research team includes Family Science doctoral candidate Naheed Ahmed; Family Science Professor and Department Chair and Principal Investigator, Sandra C. Quinn; Gregory Hancock of the UMD College of Education; Vicki Freimuth of the University of Georgia Center for Health and Risk Communication and Amelia Jamison of the University of Maryland Center for Health Equity. Dr. Quinn and colleagues have published several studies examining attitudes and behaviors around vaccination, including acceptance in routine and emergency situations and racial disparities in vaccine uptake.
The study, “Social Media Use and Influenza Vaccine Uptake Among White and African American Adults” was published in Vaccine.