Health as a social media

Kristen Daly


The pervasiveness of social media networks combined with new health monitoring devices and an increasing understanding of the importance of social influence on chronic disease has created a situation where health can be integrated into and change our self-identity, our social relationships and our relationship with our communities both local and global, on-line and in-person to a much greater extent than in the recent past.

Health has always played a role in social interaction and culture, to the extent that rules have had to be explicated barring health talk from conversation.1 The TMI (too much information) dining table conversation, falling into details of health ailments or procedures, is a common comedic trope. Lately, communication technologies such as social networks have become more intimately intertwined with our health, changing our cultural rituals, who we interact with and even how we perceive ourselves in the social structure.

The relationship between social networks, culture and infectious disease has been clear for some time. Infectious disease networks map directly onto our social networks, demonstrating who we go to school with, work with, socialize with, live with or near, spend holidays with, share utilities with, eat food with and have sex with. The link between chronic diseases and our social networks and cultural practices is only recently coming to light. At the most basic level genetics have shown familial networks of disease potential, but increasingly researchers are finding that who we socialize with both in person and increasingly online, the built environment of our communities (itself a function of social history), who we went to school with, and who we live among have direct consequences on our likelihood of suffering from and particularly how we manage a host of chronic diseases including heart disease, obesity, diabetes and even Alzheimer’s.

Particularly in the United States, we have tended to take an individual choice view of chronic disease, but evidence demonstrates that what you eat, how much your exercise, the air you breathe, the stress you experience and whether you smoke is very closely linked to your social, cultural and community environment beyond individual characteristics.

By the end of 2014, there will be more mobile-connected devices than people on the planet and by 2018, more than half of these devices will be “smart” devices(CVN 2014 ). Over one billion people participate in Facebook and more than half a billion in Twitter. With health beginning to integrate into this media connectivity, our relationship both to our own health and to the health of our friends and communities as well as our relationship with the health system from the community level to the global is changing. What this presentation will do is elucidate some of these changes and imagine prospective scenarios for how the integration of health into our social media networks might change how we view ourselves, our communities, and even our relationship with the larger global community.

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