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Social Media, Twitter, and Future Applications to Public Health

October 04, 2012 | 2 Minute Read

With increasing usage among students, faculty, and alumni, social media tools are changing the way institutions of higher ed conduct classes, communicate, and recruit new students. A 2011 Dartmouth study analyzing trends in social media usage among U.S. colleges and universities found that a full 100% of the study participants were using some form of social media to engage current and former students (Barnes and Lescault, 2011). This finding might at first seem rather pedestrian. But when one considers that a mere three years earlier there were an estimated 61% of the sampled colleges and universities using social media tools one begins to get an appreciation for the staggering pace at which things are changing (Barnes and Lescault, 2011).

Institutions of higher ed are not only using social media tools at an unprecedented rate, they are beginning to acknowledge the value of the collaborative nature of social media. Earlier Dartmouth studies analyzing social media use revealed that university blogs were being routinely misused by colleges and universities by denying students the ability to comment on posts (Barnes and Lescault, 2011). This most recent study found that "schools are mastering the tool and embracing its true spirit of two-way conversation" (Barnes and Lescault, 2011, paragraph 17).

University researchers are also finding new uses for social media in the area of public health. Hopkins research professor Mark Dredze has developed new computational models to analyze well over a million sickness-related tweets to discern large-scale health trends (Dredze, 2012). One huge advantage in using Twitter to investigate health and sickness trends in large populations is the immediacy of the results when compared to the more time-intensive, traditional survey methods used by groups like the Centers for Disease Control.

Monitoring health-related tweets additionally offers insights into behavioral health and sickness trends that are not always up for discussion in traditional forms of public health data collection. Dredze explains that the "behaviors that people might be reluctant to share with physicians are on full display on Twitter, including behaviors, opinions, and subpopulations that are otherwise difficult to track through traditional mechanisms, suggesting a whole new area of large-scale public-health research" (Dredze, 2012, p. 83).

Dredze produced an excellent YouTube video that explains his thoughts on how Twitter can be used in public health, which is viewable here.


Barnes, N. G., & Lescault, A. M. (2012). Social media adoption soars as higher-ed experiments and reevaluates its use of new communications tools. Accessed from http://www.umassd.edu/cmr/studiesandresearch/socialmediaadoptionsoars/

Dredze, M. (2012) How social media will change public health. IEEE Intelligent Systems, vol. 27, no. 4, pp. 81-84, July-Aug. 2012, doi:10.1109/MIS.2012.76