On Tuesday I am giving an invited presentation at an event organised by VicHealth on the theme of ‘Harnessing the Power of Digital Technologies’. Some of the issues I’ll be focusing on include covering the different ways in which digital devices and software are used for health promotion, and what the social issues are. I’ll be drawing on my recent and current research projects looking at the social aspects of how people use digital health and self-tracking technologies (see my blog post summarising the findings of these projects here).
The critical sociological approach I’ll be advancing is discussed in a range of my publications over the past few years. The most recent of these publications include my book Digital Health: Critical and Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives, a chapter on wearable devices (available OA here), an article on what health professionals and healthcare consumers see as valuable about digital health and what its future may be (available OA here), a special journal issue I edited on self-tracking, health and medicine (the editorial for this is OA here) and an article reporting my research project on the use of social media by healthcare workers (available OA here).
Here are some of the points I’ll be making in my talk:
Among public health and health promotion professionals, social media campaigns and dedicated websites are popular forms of communicating with target groups. These approaches often take an individualistic and to-down approach, using old-style paternalistic health education and social marketing models of behaviour change and applying them to the new media contexts. They often fail to recognise that people are spontaneously and actively searching for information about health and medicine on the internet and using social media and apps to generate and share this information.
Health promotion professionals are competing for consumer engagement with a digital health ecosystem in which the commercial/corporate sector offers a far more compelling range of products. It was estimated last year that there are over 325,000 health and medical apps available on the major app stores. Social media are now a key site for the dissemination of health-related news and information. People use Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter and Pinterest to access and share information about health, medical care and physical fitness. A large range of blogs and discussion forums have been established for people to have a say on health-related matters and respond to others. Wearable devices like Fitbit and Apple Watch provide opportunities for people to monitor and measure their health and fitness levels.
Visual media have become important in people’s engagements online, including selfies, memes, GIFs and videos. YouTube offers countless videos made by consumers about their health and fitness experiences and insights. ‘Healthy lifestyle’ influencers on platforms like Instagram and YouTube have a huge reach and impact, particularly for young people. Hashtags like #fitspo, #cleaneating, #fitnessaddict, #iquitsugar, #wellness and #weightlossjourney are used to organise content and attract like-minded audiences. Communities that challenge mainstream health promotion messages and seek to promote resistant modes of embodiment use hashtags like #badfatty, #thinspo, #proana, #selfinjury and #blithe (used for content about self-harm, eating disorders and depression), particularly on Tumblr.
My research on how public health professionals use social media found that they recognised that these communication channels were important for consumer engagement and also found them beneficial to connect with other professionals working in their fields. However, they experienced many constraints such as lack of institutional knowledge about how best to use social media, rules about not using social media in the workplace, lack of access to the internet, or peers disapproving of social media. If they were working in a contentious or sensitive area of public health, these professionals had to consider the possibility of being attacked by members of the public on social media, or inadvertently saying the wrong thing publicly.
There is a need for a social perspective on digitised health promotion. The different ways in which social groups use and respond to digitised health promotion need to be considered (for example, attributes such as gender, age, social class, education level, ethnic/racial background, health status and geographical location). My research identifies several key differences between the different groups I have included. For example, women with young children use Facebook a lot for sharing information about pregnancy and childcare and to arrange in-person meetings. Young people, on the other hand, prefer YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat to access and share health information. My project on self-tracking cyclists found that they loved to use platforms like Strava to share their data and compete with and provide support to each other. In contrast, my project on everyday self-trackers, who monitored a range of attributes about their bodies and lives, and another of my projects on women’s use of digital health technologies, found that very few were interested in sharing their data with others beyond family members or their doctors.
Personal data privacy and security are important issues when discussing how digital technologies can be used for health promotion. Across my research projects, there was very little awareness of or concern about how internet companies and app developers collect, use and share people’s often very sensitive health-related information when they engage with these technologies. This included public health professionals, who were not considering these issues in relation to their work-related activities.