More than 72 percent of online adults — and 89 percent of online young adults — belong to at least one social network, according to a 2013 Pew Research Center survey. The average Facebook user spends more than 40 minutes per day surfing the site, according to the company’s CEO.
Given stats like these, the broad reach of Facebook, Twitter and other sites could provide a new tool to help more people lose weight and make other health behavior changes, according to University of Massachusetts Medical School psychologist Sherry Pagoto, PhD, an expert in the behavioral aspects of obesity control and cancer prevention.
Pagoto, who presented her research here, was interested in translating an evidence-based weight loss program called the Diabetes Prevention Program (DPP) into something that could be shared via social networks. The DPP trains “lifestyle coaches” to help people at risk for diabetes learn to eat more healthily and increase their physical activity. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention runs the program at more than 700 sites throughout the U.S., through a partnership with local organizations like the YMCA.
An online program could potentially treat many more people, according to Pagoto. In an initial study, she organized 45 participants who wanted to lose weight into four groups. One group participated in a traditional 12-week in-person DPP. Another participated in a combined in-person program and Twitter group. A third participated in just a Twitter group. And the fourth also participated in the in-person and Twitter program, but with the additional factor that the participants suffered from depression.
In the Twitter program, trained facilitators logged in daily to tweet links to content from the program, as well as generate discussion among participants. The participants would also support each other – one participant, for example, tweeted a picture of doughnuts from her office kitchen with the caption “look what my office does for Halloween!” and others chimed in to encourage her to resist the temptation.
In the end, Pagoto found that the Twitter program worked for patients who were not depressed — the Twitter-only participants lost as much weight as the in-person and the Twitter-plus-in-person ones – but it was not effective for the depressed patients.
In a follow-up study, Pagoto tested a Facebook version of the program, this time also providing incentives to some participants to post more often. She wanted to see if encouraging these “superusers” would help everyone lose more weight. That study just ended, Pagoto said, but early data suggest that the program did help participants lose weight, though the effect of the superusers was unclear.
So far, all of Pagoto’s studies have used closed, private groups. But one of the advantages of Facebook and Twitter is the way in which popular groups, posts and memes can spread exponentially. So in future research, Pagoto wants to open up her studies and allow her participants to invite friends into the groups throughout the study.
“There are IRB issues to figure out” and methodological ones too, she said. But the payoff could be worth it. “It has the ability to take on a life of its own.”