• 8Jun

    Using Social Media to Target Cancer Prevention in Young Adults

    A viewpoint article published by JMIR:

    Focusing on primary cancer prevention can reduce its incidence. Changing health behaviors is critical to cancer prevention. Modifiable cancer risk factors include lifestyle behaviors related to vaccination, physical activity, weight control and maintenance, alcohol consumption, and tobacco use. These health habits are often formed in young adulthood, a life stage which currently intersects with the growing population of digital natives whose childhood occurred in the internet era. Social media is a critical communication medium to reach this population of digital natives. Using a life course perspective, the purpose of this viewpoint paper is to describe the current landscape of nascent research using social media to target cancer prevention efforts in young adults and propose future directions to strengthen the scientific knowledge supporting social media strategies to promote cancer prevention behaviors. Leveraging social media as a health promotion tool is a promising strategy to impact modifiable behavioral risk factors for cancer and warrants further research on developing effective communication strategies in young adults to prevent cancer in the future generations.

    Cancer is a leading cause of death in the United States and a major growing public health burden. Primary prevention is an important strategy of focus as the burgeoning scientific research supports the notion that a large portion of cancer is preventable [1,2]. Although the etiology of cancer is multifactorial and complex and differs across specific types of cancer, it has been well established that approximately 50% to 60% of all cancers can be reduced with behavior change such as vaccination, physical activity, weight control and maintenance, reducing alcohol consumption, and smoking cessation [3,4]. Given this context, it is critical for public health efforts to prioritize the fostering of positive health behaviors to reduce the future burden of cancer.

    Many of these health behaviors are considered modifiable risk factors, and to an extent, may be more susceptible to change and influence during critical age periods over one’s life course. Cancer prevention efforts have traditionally focused on older adults aged 40 years and over, who tend to be eligible for most cancer screenings and have more health awareness as they naturally experience more health issues with aging. However, much less attention has been paid to cancer prevention strategies targeted to younger age demographics, such as those aged 18-29 years, and, in particular, to strategies tailored through the use of new media. It is imperative to target young adults to promote cancer prevention behaviors before cancer develops. This younger age group is a critical developmental period that can set the stage for forming mindsets and worldviews that will ultimately shape future health habits and lifestyles [5,6]. Although cancer does not commonly occur in this age group, it is important to focus on prevention earlier in life, as cancer exposures are generally thought to occur earlier in life and contribute to cancers that are more commonly diagnosed among those 40 years and older (eg, lung, breast, colorectal, and prostate). Cancer prevention behaviors include these upstream behaviors, which can be modified earlier in life and directly relevant to young adults, as well as the more proximal action of completing recommended cancer screening, which is generally not relevant to young adults for the most common cancers (breast, prostate, and colorectal cancers).

    The generation of young adults born from 1995 onwards are considered digital natives and defined as people “born or brought up during the age of digital technology and therefore familiar with computers and the internet from an early age” [7]. Young adults aged 18-29 years are the most frequent users of social media; in 2016, 86% of them used at least one social media site [8] and 92% engaged with 2 or more devices simultaneously including mobile phones, tablets, PC, and TV [9]. Social media must be considered as a public health strategy in young adults, simply because it is embedded in their everyday lives. To effectively reach them, health communication must occur where they are, engaging in online platforms, and must also be tailored using effective cancer prevention messaging uniquely suited for particular online platforms. For example, Twitter messages are limited to 280 characters and cancer prevention messaging to younger populations must take into design the linguistic and cultural factors in how to effectively communicate and engage young adults through Twitter.

    In this viewpoint paper, we focus on social media and past use in primary cancer prevention in the general population and discuss how these studies can be applied to young adults to reduce the burden of cancer in the next generation of older adults. We reflect on the current state of the field and offer discussion on how previous research has implications for considering measurement and theoretical issues in future directions of research. Specifically, we provide an example of theoretical considerations from our current work (Lyson et al. Social media as a tool to promote health awareness: results from an online cervical cancer prevention study. Under review, submitted April 2018), describe various types of studies using social media for health communication with young adult digital natives with supporting examples, highlight methodological considerations in conducting studies in this field, and propose to integrate the life course perspective of cancer prevention with new forms of media, both of which overlap in the focus on young adults and lifestyle behavior change to present a unique opportunity for researchers to test effective cancer prevention strategies using social media.

    Sarkar U, Le GM, Lyles CR, Ramo D, Linos E, Bibbins-Domingo K
    Using Social Media to Target Cancer Prevention in Young Adults: Viewpoint
    J Med Internet Res 2018;20(6):e203
    DOI: 10.2196/jmir.8882

    You can find the full article here: http://www.jmir.org/2018/6/e203/