Harnessing the Power of Social Media: One Viral Post Can Generate Tons of Skin Cancer Awareness

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You don’t have to be a celebrity to give voice to a public health concern on social media.

Just one person can generate awareness about skin cancer -- when his or her post and picture is shared thousands of times on Facebook, researchers report in the journal Preventive Medicine.

In April 2015, Tawny Dzierzek, a nurse from Kentucky, shared a selfie on Facebook after a recent skin cancer treatment. A former frequent user of tanning beds, Dzierzek was first diagnosed with skin cancer at age 21. By age 27, she had had basal cell carcinoma five times, and squamous cell carcinoma once. Her post was shared 50,000 times on social media in less than a month, and her story was picked up by media outlets ranging from CNN to BuzzFeed.

Dzierzek’s post, and the subsequent media coverage of her story, proved to be powerful tools in raising awareness about skin cancer.

Google searches about skin cancer reached near-record levels when media coverage about Dzierzek’s selfie was at its peak.

“A growing body of research shows that stories can be very impactful -- more impactful than didactic information -- in delivering a health message,” says UNC Lineberger’s Seth Noar, PhD, a professor in the UNC School of Media and Journalism and the study’s lead author, in a news release. “This event was really a perfect storm of a compelling story and graphic selfie, which seems to have led this Facebook post to go viral.”

For the study, Noar collaborated with several colleagues across the country with expertise in digital surveillance methods. The team evaluated Facebook shares and media coverage, as well as trends in online Google searches for the words “skin” and “cancer” on the date that Dzierzek initially posted the photo on Facebook (April 25, 2015) through the period when media coverage of her story peaked and then declined.

Not only did the public have more interest in skin cancer, but they were also substantially more interested in skin cancer prevention and the link between tanning and skin cancer.

Online searches for skin cancer prevention were as much as 232 percent higher than expected, while queries about skin cancer and tanning were as much as 489 percent higher. 

In addition to demonstrating the value of personal narratives in delivering a public health message, Noar said researchers and practitioners could learn to time messages around events such as this.

“When this happened, it really captured the public’s attention on social media and through national media coverage,” Noar says. “That’s an opportune time for all of us to get the message out about the dangers of tanning beds,” he says.

“Tanning bed use has been starting to decline, and events like this may play a role by reaching people through a 21st century medium with a real story that strikes a chord at a very human level.”  

The study was supported by the University Cancer Research Fund and UNC Lineberger.

PHOTO CAPTION:UNC Lineberger’s Seth Noar, PhD, is a professor in the UNC School of Media and Journalism.

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