Social network interventions can lead to potential health benefits

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A research team from Queen’s, with support from the Public Health Agency (PHA), has found social network interventions, such as Facebook posts and sponsored ads, educating popular teenagers to spread health messages to peer groups can have a positive effect on public health behaviours and outcomes.

The research was carried out in partnership with the University of Southern California.

Dr Ruth Hunter, from the Centre for Public Health at Queen’s University Belfast and lead author on the paper, explained: “Humans are embedded in social networks and these networks obey very particular rules - mathematical, biological, sociological, and psychological – if we can understand these rules they give us whole new ways of intervening for the better.

“The aim of our research was to understand how best we can use social networks to encourage us to be healthier.”

Positive behaviours noted were reaching out to pharmacists to quit smoking and/or cutting back on unhealthy foods.

Physical activity, diabetes and vaccinations were also positively benefitted by these interventions and led to significant improvements in health outcomes.

The research is published this week in PLOS Medicine and was funded by the Northern Ireland Research and Development Office.

In the study, the research team conducted a review and analysis of 37 studies.  The studies were conducted between the years 1996 and 2018, in 11 countries, and included a total of 53,891 participants.

Dr Janice Bailie, Assistant Director of the Public Health Agency’s (PHA) Research and Development Division, said: “This is important research which will have relevance for the development of health policy in Northern Ireland and elsewhere.

“The National Institute for Health Research Fellowship Programme supports individuals on their trajectory to becoming future leaders in health and social care research. The Health and Social Care Research and Development Division of the PHA supports applications from Northern Ireland-based researchers to these award schemes, facilitating work such as that published by Dr Hunter and her research team.”

Notes to the editor
  1. Media enquiries to or tel: +44 28 9097 5292.
  2. Dr Ruth Hunter is available for interview. Interview bids to or tel: +44 28 9097 5292. 
  3. Full pdf of paper.pdf