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Social Media can Help Prevent HIV

Update Date: Oct 29, 2014 12:15 PM EDT

Social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, can be used to prevent the spread of HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), a new study detailed. According to the researcher, Sean Young, health-related data collected from social media websites can be used to track, predict and prevent certain health conditions.

"We know that mining social media will have huge potential benefits for many areas of medicine in the future, but we're still in the early stages of testing how powerful these technologies will be," Young, from the Center for Digital Behavior at the University of California, Los Angeles, said.

In the article, Young discusses how social media can potentially be used "to know where, when, and how we might be able to prevent HIV transmission." According to his recent work on Behavioral Insights on Big Data (BIBD), Young believes that governments, public health departments, medical care facilities, such as hospitals and clinics, and caretakers can one day use information provided from social media websites to monitor health patterns.

For example, tweets can reveal when people are engaged or planning to be engaged in sexual- or drug-related activities. By being able to map out these trends, researchers can determine which locations could benefit the most from prevention programs aimed to reduce HIV transmission.

Young also details an intervention program that collected information on African American and Latino men who shared their sexual experiences with other men as well as personal coming-out stories on social media. Through this social-media-based intervention, Young discovered that people who talked about HIV prevention on social media were more likely to get tested for the virus.

Young believes that creating and updating tools to handle and interpret this kind of data can be beneficial. However, one of the main issues would be the users' privacy. Although these concerns should not be overlooked, Young cited evidence that people on social media have already started to accept the fact that their information can be used by corporations.

"Since people are already getting used to the fact that corporations are doing this, we should at least support public health researchers in using these same methods to try and improve our health and well being," Young said in the press release. "We're already seeing increased support from patients and public health departments."

The study, "Behavioral insights on big data: using social media for predicting biomedical outcomes," was published in the Cell Press journal, Trends in Microbiology.

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