14 March 2014
Social networking sites (SNSs) have the potential to increase the reach and efficiency of essential public health services, such as surveillance, research, and communication.
The objective of this study was to conduct a systematic literature review to identify the use of SNSs for public health research and practice and to identify existing knowledge gaps.
We performed a systematic literature review of articles related to public health and SNSs using PubMed, EMBASE, and CINAHL to search for peer-reviewed publications describing the use of SNSs for public health research and practice. We also conducted manual searches of relevant publications. Each publication was independently reviewed by 2 researchers for inclusion and extracted relevant study data.
A total of 73 articles met our inclusion criteria. Most articles (n=50) were published in the final 2 years covered by our search. In all, 58 articles were in the domain of public health research and 15 were in public health practice. Only 1 study was conducted in a low-income country. Most articles (63/73, 86%) described observational studies involving users or usages of SNSs; only 5 studies involved randomized controlled trials. A large proportion (43/73, 59%) of the identified studies included populations considered hard to reach, such as young individuals, adolescents, and individuals at risk of sexually transmitted diseases or alcohol and substance abuse. Few articles (2/73, 3%) described using the multidirectional communication potential of SNSs to engage study populations.
The number of publications about public health uses for SNSs has been steadily increasing in the past 5 years. With few exceptions, the literature largely consists of observational studies describing users and usages of SNSs regarding topics of public health interest. More studies that fully exploit the communication tools embedded in SNSs and study their potential to produce significant effects in the overall population’s health are needed.