A study by the Washington University in St. Louis reveals an overall lack of government, media, educational, and other credible sources of information on Twitter regarding childhood obesity.

Childhood obesity incidence worldwide has nearly doubled during the period 1980-2013, according to The Lancet. The MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region has among the highest rates of child and adolescent obesity. In the United States, some 32 percent of youths aged 2-19 were considered obese in 2012.

Although largely preventable, obesity has not been curbed by any country in the last three decades. This alarming trend augurs a long-term public health crisis in most countries, according to the World Health Organization.

To educate people about childhood obesity, public health experts are supplementing traditional methods with newer ways of reaching out, such as social media. Many organizations have Facebook pages and YouTube channels. But a recent study suggests that they may be forgetting Twitter, and that is a mistake.

Researchers led by Jenine K. Harris, PhD, an assistant professor at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis, tracked and examined 1110 tweets with the hashtag #childhoodobesity from 576 unique users during a month-long period, to find out how the topic is being talked about and to what extent.

In the study, the content of tweets, source and background of tweeters, and the connection between tweeters were analyzed using descriptive statistics and exponential random graph modeling. Mentions and retweets were counted to measure engagement. More than half of the tweets included a mention, and a quarter were retweets from other sources. Aside from #childhoodobesity, the unique hashtags identified were: #obesity #health, #nutrition, #move, #coc13, #healthykids, #childobesity, #playcityla, #healthy, and #physed.

The study revealed that more individuals (65.6 percent) than organizations (32.9 percent) tweeted about childhood obesity. Moreover, those individuals were not connected to known healthcare organizations, but were interacting within their private network to discuss individual behavioral or lifestyle changes. Just a few government agencies and educational groups were involved in conversations, and only a few tweets were about policy. 

Harris said the results indicate that more people are talking about childhood obesity on Twitter, but the conversations may not be accurate. Moreover, academic and governmental health experts are not as engaged in Twitter as they should have, and that they should take advantage of the platform to reach out to more people.

“Public health communities, politicians, and government sources — people who really know what works — should join in the conversation,” Harris said in a press release. “Then we might be able to make an impact.”

The research team cites a 2014 Twitter update by Pew Research, which said that Twitter use is growing among low-income groups, non-whites and younger people. Incidentally, these groups are among the likeliest to be obese and overweight, and they are also traditionally more difficult to reach with health information.

Using a one-to-many or many-to-many communication platform such as Twitter could be therefore be more effective in disseminating credible information and encouraging behavioral changes, the researchers said.

“Increasing the number of tweets incorporating public health evidence to increase exposure to such evidence among the large and diverse Twitter audience is a promising strategy to aid in reaching the goal of moving evidence into practice,” the researchers wrote in their study. “Because government and educational sources are likely the producers of much of the public health evidence, increasing the presence of these credible sources may increase the number of tweets with content that is consistent with current evidence.”

The researchers noted that organizations are perceived to be more authoritative than individuals on Twitter. Government and media accounts are often verified and are likely to have more followers. The researchers suggest that these sources should leverage their reach and credibility in providing relevant and trustworthy information regarding childhood obesity.

As stated in a nuviun article, “Any healthcare organization with a sluggish attitude toward engaging consumers on social media will experience a severe disadvantage in communicating the true value they deliver.”

“I think public health so far doesn’t have a great game plan for using social media, we’re still laying the foundation for that,” Harris said. “We’re still learning what works.”

The study, Communication About Childhood Obesity on Twitter, was co-authored by Sarah Moreland-Russell, PhD, MPH, Rachel G. Tabak, PhD, Lindsay R. Ruhr, MSW, MPPA, and Ryan C. Maier, supported by the Washington University Center For Diabetes Translation Research from the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and was published recently in the American Journal of Public Health.