When you click “like” on a yoga studio’s Facebook page, or to get a deal on a fast-food restaurant, you may also be helping obesity researchers.
A team from Boston Children’s Hospital noticed a correlation between Facebook users’ interests and their area’s obesity rates.
“The data show that in places where Facebook users have more activity-related interests, there is a lower prevalence of obesity and overweight,” researcher Rumi Chunara said in a press release. “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 researchers compiled the Facebook data, including what users posted to their timelines, what they “liked,” and what they shared, and compared it with data from health surveys conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and New York City’s EpiQuery Community Health Survey. The comparison showed a clear link: Obesity rates were lower in areas where Facebook data revealed active lifestyles, and higher in areas where the data revealed a greater interest in sedentary activities, such as television.
It also worked at a more localized level when researchers honed in on the neighborhoods of New York City.
The idea is that such targeted data could help pinpoint localized intervention methods.
“We have to look at ways to reach out to people, and one of the things you can look at is how people cluster,” Dr. Jennifer Li, a professor of pediatrics and division chief of pediatric cardiology at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., told Time. “People cluster in social media just as well as they do in real life. If you smoke, your friends are more likely to smoke. If you’re obese, you’re friends are more likely to be obese. If you can make an impact on the group, you can have a ripple effect.”