Social Media for Public Health


In this day and age, people go to the Internet for everything and anything. If they are sick they will “WebMD” their symptoms, and they are likely willing to share these symptoms in a comment section on an open forum. This can be both beneficial and detrimental for scientists, and the approach even has a name now: digital epidemiology. There are many reasons why trusting an educated stranger can harm your health, but listing your symptoms or reactions can be very helpful in the field of public health. It can be difficult for this approach to thrive, as it is impossible to identify the socioeconomic status, gender, race, or age of the individuals who provide their health information. This also raises the question: does digital epidemiology only benefit the wealthy? An individual must be able to afford or have access to a phone, computer, tablet, etc. to be posting on a forum.

Researchers in this study examined reviews from the website Yelp, where millions of people leave small or large comments about restaurants they have visited. The researchers particularly examined the reviews that mentioned food poisoning, and were also able to have the location from where the reviews were posted. From this, they were able to estimate the socioeconomic and demographic factors. They found that wealthier people who could afford to go out to eat more often were reporting more cases of food poisoning via Yelp, while those living in poverty would obviously not be able to post about it; nor eat at these restaurants. This data does not exactly match up to information provided by the Centers for Disease Control, as they state that individuals of low socioeconomic status have higher incidences of foodborne illness. This is explained however through the lack of internet, health literacy, and computer literacy.

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