Lips are sealed when sick

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Facebook has become a place for anyone to post their feelings, what they ate for lunch, things that happened to them that day, and just about anything on their mind. A recent study shows, however, that very few will post information or experiences about their health.

According to Rosemary Thackeray, BYU professor of health science and lead author of a study appearing online in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, about 60 percent of social media users go online for health help. Only 15.1 percent, however, posted health-related comments or questions on an online discussion board, blog, social networking site, Twitter or any type of health site. This data comes from Pew Internet & American Life Project.

In addition, Thackeray said only 31.6 percent of people use social media for health-related activities, such as getting information, learning about health experiences or updates and finding those with similar symptoms.

Thackeray’s study, which was conducted with BYU colleagues Ben Crookston and Josh West, also found that while many BYU students post about how they are feeling physically, only 9.9 percent offered links to medical advice or offered to share personal experiences.

This is not true, however, for Megan Ward, a family life major from South Jordan, who suffers from a chronic illness and posts on Facebook when she’s feeling particularly sick.

“I’m already seeing a doctor and taking medications, so I’m not posting to get advice about the best medicine to take. Mostly, you want sympathy and love. I’m not going to call home and talk to my mommy every time I’m sick,” Ward said. “But I feel like posting on Facebook is a convenient way to get a sympathy vote and to put my feelings out there without feeling like a burden to my family or roommates. It’s an easy way to be a friend and reach out to others.”

Thackeray shared how people can best utilize social media to get answers and information about health.

“When looking for health information, historically, people trust doctors the most, followed by friends and family. Getting information from friends and family is much easier through using social media applications. This information can help you become an informed health care consumer and work with your health care provider to develop the best care and treatment plan for you,” she said.

Thackeray knows, however, that people choose to keep their health experiences to themselves for several reasons. People may want their privacy and do not want to share personal health experiences with the world. Others may not perceive health-related news as newsworthy. People may also want to avoid being judged or labeled for an illness or symptom they are experiencing.

Ward believes it is better to reach out and offer assistance rather than advice.

“You don’t want to get involved in (others’) personal health issues. You also don’t want to step in and play the mom or the doctor. It can be overbearing,” she said.

According to Thackeray, 75 percent of people start their search for health information on search engines like Yahoo! or Google. Researchers say social media could become more valuable to its audiences if more people joined in on health discussions. The biggest challenge is getting people to feel interested and comfortable sharing their health experiences online with both friends and strangers.

If more people shared health information on social media, the information would become better, according to Thackeray.

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