Social media’s role in health

Burnet Institute

06 January, 2014

Researchers at Burnet’s Centre for Population Health have pioneered research into the use of new technologies such as SMS and social networking sites for health promotion.

This is an edited version of a feature article published in the Summer 2013 edition of IMPACT.

New communication technologies are a focus of work being undertaken by Co-Head of Burnet’s Sexual Health Research Group, Dr Megan Lim.

With funding from an Australian National Preventive Health Agency (ANPHA) Research Fellowship and using her PhD project model, Dr Lim and her team will be trialling the use of text messages to try and reduce alcohol consumption and the harms associated with risky drinking in young people.

“It’s well-documented that drinking among young Australians is a big problem, we need novel ways to tackle risky drinking,” Dr Lim said.

Another project will look at the ways alcohol companies advertise on social media, including Facebook, Twitter and smart phone applications.

“There has been a proven link between exposure to alcohol advertising and excessive drinking in young people,“ Dr Lim explained.

“There are no guidelines or laws restricting alcohol advertising on social media. Our project will scan social media sites to see what companies are doing and hold focus groups to determine what impact this is having on young people.”

A Burnet project funded by the Australian Rechabites Foundation has identified hundreds of smartphone apps that promote excessive alcohol consumption. It found many claim to be providing alcohol-related advice, such as estimations of blood alcohol concentration, were unreliable or misleading.

The evidence gathered from this research will be used to inform policy-makers on the most effective way to combat the widespread problem of risky drinking among young people.

These policy-makers recognise the need for evidence-based research. A Victorian parliamentary inquiry into sexting (sending sexually explicit messages by mobile phone) tabled a list of 14 recommendations to deal with the growing problem of sexting in the community.

The first recommendation on that list called for the Victorian Government to commission research to examine qualitative and quantitative aspects of sexting practices by children and adults in Victoria.

“Currently, if you are caught with a sexually explicit photo of someone under 18 on your phone, even if it is of yourself, you can be charged under the child pornography laws and even be placed on the sex offender register which can obviously have serious life consequences,” Dr Lim said.

Burnet has included a question in its annual Big Day Out music festival survey since 2012 about sexting, ‘Have you ever sent or received sexually explicit photos, video or text by phone or online or facebook?’

“A massive 40 per cent of people surveyed aged between 16 and 29 said yes. Sexting was particularly common among males,” Dr Lim revealed.

“We want to find out more, such as what do young people know about the legal and social consequences of sexting? What motivates them?

“The negative aspects of sexting are highlighted in media reports, but what about the positive side; exploring sexuality, improving relationships and having fun.”

(Image: Megan Lim, Alyce Vella and Timothy Yeung)

Young researcher Timothy Yeung has undertaken an honours project at Burnet, SEXT ME UR (.)(.), that investigates the prevalence and practice of sexting among young Australians, the first study of it’s kind in Australia.

With many ‘mHealth’ (mobile health) projects underway around the world, Dr Lim suggests now is the time to exercise caution.

“There is very little scientific evaluation going on so we don’t know how effective these are and what impact they are having on public health,” she said.

Burnet’s researchers will be surveying young people at the 2014 Big Day Out festival on Friday 24 January.

Contact Details

For more information in relation to this news article, please contact:

Associate Professor Megan SC Lim

Deputy Program Director, Disease Elimination; Head, Young People’s Health




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