Young Explores the Use of Social Media to Monitor Public Health Behavior

February 14, 2022

With expertise in both health and technology, Informatics Professor Sean Young has been exploring what role social media might play in helping to address the COVID-19 pandemic. Young’s joint appointment between the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences (ICS) and the School of Medicine (SOM) at UCI gives him a unique perspective when approaching this topic, and he recently co-authored two papers on COVID-19 and the use of social media in monitoring health behaviors.

One paper, “Social Media Images as an Emerging Tool to Monitor Adherence to COVID-19 Public Health Guidelines: Content Analysis,” has been accepted to the Journal of Medical Internet Research. The paper was a collaboration with Qingpeng Zheng of City University of Hong Kong, Daniel Dajun Zeng of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Yongcheng Zhan of California Polytechnic State University, and William G. Cumberland of UCLA. The study involved analyzing 30,000 Instagram images in New York City just before the pandemic and right after it began. The researchers found that the social media data could be used to monitor adherence to public health recommendations such as masking and social distancing.

The number of images posted to the location hashtags #Centralpark, #Brooklynbridge and #TimesSquare just before the pandemic (Feb. 7, 2020) through to the beginning of the pandemic (April 3, 2020). The researchers found a statistically significant decline in the number of posts over time across all regions, with an approximate decline of 17% across each site.

“For a number of reasons, there has been extraordinarily low adherence to public health department and CDC guidelines for COVID-19 prevention and control. We found a new health informatics method that uses publicly available information and might be used to help researchers and policymakers monitor who is adhering, how and where,” explains Young, who also serves as executive director of the University of California Institute for Prediction Technology (UCIPT). “This could have important implications for preventing and controlling COVID-19 and future pandemics. It also shows the potential of near real-time, public social media data as a method for monitoring health behaviors and outcomes.” He plans to conduct future research to scale and further validate this approach and to ensure ethical deployment.

The second paper, “The Role of Social Media in Monitoring COVID-19 Vaccine Uptake,” was co-authored with Renee Garett of ElevateU and has been accepted to the Journal of Evaluation in Clinical Practice. It provides a brief perspective on potential use of social media data to help public health departments monitor people’s changing views of COVID-19 vaccinations.

“There are many surveys and interviews being used to get this information, but these approaches are time-intensive, expensive and not sustainable. Our paper, which builds on our prior research using social media to monitor attitudes and behaviors around many areas of health, argues that social media could be used to assist those traditional methods of monitoring vaccine perspectives,” says Young. “Social media occurs in near real-time and is publicly available, allowing the opportunity to use artificial intelligence to identify patterns on massive amounts of data among people sharing their changing views on COVID-19 vaccinations.”

Shani Murray