How Facebook is tracking obesity where you live

Teresa Tanoos's picture
Study finds Facebook useful in tracking obesity rates
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The higher the percentage of Facebook users in a city who list “healthy, active lifestyle” as one of their interests, the lower that city’s obesity rate, according to a new study published April 24 in PLOS ONE.

Conversely, the study also found that the higher the percentage of Facebook users in a city who have television-related interests, the higher the rates of obesity in that area.

Combined, these findings indicate that tracking people's online interests within geographic areas may be useful in helping researchers predict obesity rates in specific cities, towns, and even neighborhoods – while, at the same time, give them an opportunity to create geo-targeted online interventions in an effort to lower obesity rates.

The study, led by Rumi Chunara, PhD, and John Brownstein, PhD, of Boston Children's Hospital's Informatics Program (CHIP), examined geo-tagged Facebook user data and compared it with data from national and New York City-focused health surveys.

The amount of data available from social networks like Facebook makes it easy to accurately conduct research cohorts in a sufficient size that previously was not possible. As a result, researchers are now able to dig deeper into the societal environment’s influence on health issues, such as obesity. This kind of research can sometimes be difficult due to multiple factors, including cost, gathering a large enough sample size, the slow pace of data analysis, as well as the use of traditional reporting and surveillance systems

"Online social networks like Facebook represent a new high-value, low-cost data stream for looking at health at a population level," says Brownstein, who runs the Computational Epidemiology Group within CHIP. "The tight correlation between Facebook users' interests and obesity data suggest that this kind of social network analysis could help generate real-time estimates of obesity levels in an area, help target public health campaigns that would promote healthy behavior change, and assess the success of those campaigns."

To find a link between Facebook interests and obesity, the researchers gathered aggregated Facebook user interest data from users across the U.S. and those living in New York City. They examined what these Facebook users posted to their timeline, what they "liked", and what they shared with others.

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Then they compared the percentages of users showing an interest in healthy activities or television shows with data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System-Selected Metropolitan/Micropolitan Area Risk Trends (BRFSS-SMART), and New York City's EpiQuery Community Health Survey (CHS).

As a result of the comparison, they found close relationships between obesity rates and Facebook interests. For example, the obesity rates from BRFSS-SMART were 12 percent lower in areas of the U.S. where the highest percentage of Facebook users documented activity-related interests (Coeur d'Alene, Idaho), compared to areas with the lowest percentage (Kansas City, Mo.-Kan.).

Moreover, the obesity rate in the location with the highest percentage of users with TV interests in the U.S. (Myrtle Beach-Conway-North Myrtle Beach, S.C.) was 3.9 percent higher than the location with the lowest percentage (Eugene-Springfield, Ore.).

A similar correlation was found in New York City neighborhoods, which revealed the findings can range from national to local level data. The obesity rate on Coney Island, for example, had the highest percentage of activity-related interests in the city – and was 7.2 percent lower than Southwest Queens, the area with the lowest percentage.

The neighborhood with the highest percentage of TV-related interests, Northeast Bronx, had considerably higher obesity rates (27.5 percent) than the neighborhood with the lowest percentage (Greenpoint).

"The data show that in places where Facebook users have more activity-related interests, there is a lower prevalence of obesity and overweight," said Chunara, an instructor in Brownstein's group. "They reveal how social media data can augment public health surveillance by giving public health researchers access to population-level information that they can't otherwise get."

The study also shows support for the use of social media to deliver targeted interventions designed to reduce obesity rates, not to mention other diseases that being obese increase the risk for.

Meanwhile, Facebook has been the subject of other previous studies that also demonstrate it can be a useful tool in research, including a study by the University of Missouri that indicated Facebook activity can reveal clues about mental illness.

SOURCE: Assessing the Online Social Environment for Surveillance of Obesity Prevalence. Rumi Chunara, Lindsay Bouton, John W. Ayers, John S. Brownstein. PLoS ONE, 2013; 8 (4): e61373 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0061373

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