Can social media support health?

Public Health Wales in collaboration with Bangor University carried out a nationally representative household survey in Wales exploring people’s use of technology to support health.

In this blog post, Dr Alisha Davies, Head of Research and Evaluation at Public Health Wales, shares their findings on the second report focusing on social media use.

What proportion of the population are using social media? Are there some groups who use it more than others? Does it matter? Our new report ‘Population health in a digital age: Patterns in the use of social media in Wales’ offers some answers.

What proportion of the population are using social media?

Our nationally representative household survey included over 1,200 adults (aged 16+ years) in Wales. Overall, 77% of the adult population reported using social media, with 65% using it on a daily basis. The most frequently used platforms were Facebook, followed by WhatsApp, and YouTube, and lowest was Twitter. Approximately 10% of the population had access to the internet but did not use social media, and a further 10% did not have access to the internet at all.

“We can fix this skills and inclusion gap – together with government, industry and communities.”

The call to address digital exclusion is frequently featured by the Good Things Foundation, and rightly so.

A recent blog by Helen Milner OBE highlighted that “more than one in every five people you see on the street have either never used the internet (4.1 million of them), or they don’t have the digital skills to function”; stating “we can fix this skills and inclusion gap – together with government, industry, and communities.”

Actions by groups such as Digital Communities Wales supporting everyone to have the opportunity, skills and capability to engage with online platforms are essential. The need to better understand and address the causes of digital inequality is a very real challenge, or we risk widening inequalities in a digitally-led world.

Are there some groups that use social media more than others?

“Of course!” you might answer  – “Younger people!”. Amongst those who have access to the internet, we did find higher use amongst younger groups, but 76% of those aged 60-69 years and 60% aged 70+ years also said they use social media.

We also found

  • overall more women than men used social media – but some differences within different platforms (more women used social networking, photo content and messaging platforms, whereas a higher proportion of men used video content platforms).
  • those in poorer health and with multiple health harming behaviours (ie. people who smoke, are inactive and/or drink high levels of alcohol), were less likely to use social media.
  • overall there was no difference between the most and least affluent – with the exception of Twitter and Whatsapp which those from the least affluent areas were less likely to use.

Why does it matter?

Social media is ever present in today’s society, with more and more of us online. These findings help us to better understand our audiences for population health – who is/is not using different digital platforms, and raises interesting questions for future developments – can social media be a way to engage across different social groups?

There remains much to learn about the role of social media in health, both beneficial and harmful. But as public services move to digital channels, continued efforts are needed to understand and address inequalities in access, alongside recognising that social media may offer a platform to reach a wider audiences and engage differently with populations about health.

This report is the second in a series called Population health in a digital age, the first published in 2019 and explored the use of digital technology to support and monitor health in Wales.