First published 1 January 2021

Australia has one of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world, and although sun protection behaviours have gradually improved, more can be done. Extending interventions to include social media was analysed to assess its effectiveness as a skin cancer prevention tool, especially among young people.

Researcher Carina Salome Vasconcelos Nogueira e Silva worked with the Digital Observatory to analyse communication trends and the sentiment expressed in skin cancer and sun-related Twitter posts in Australia to inform clinical practice.

Evaluating social media as a tool

The study applied both quantitative and qualitative methods using two datasets of tweets posted over two summers in Australia using the most relevant hashtags and keywords, such as ‘SlipSlopSlap’ and ‘sunburn’. The datasets were used to study the number of tweets and related communication patterns and whether tweets accumulated in a positive or negative sentiment category.

The results indicated that Australians use twitter to talk about sunscreen, skin cancer, sunburn and tanning, however not so often to communicate about other sun protective behaviours or skin cancer prevention campaigns.

It also showed that the number of tweets is greatly affected by the increase in temperature and by external events and the media.

There is also a high presence of controversial and potentially misleading information on Twitter, such as high volume of posts about sunscreen side effects and pro-tanning messages.

The study highlighted the potential of using social media for public health research, enabling the analysis of changes in online health communication patterns and user sentiments over time. It also highlighted the need to share evidence-based and truthful information and expand the use of social media for more effective skin cancer prevention messages in the future.

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