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Fighting skin cancer with Facebook, YouTube and…rap?

Stanford researcher Eleni Linos turned to social media to see if it was a more effective way to spread information about skin cancer and tanning to youth.

Summer is in full swing and many people are seizing every opportunity to get outside and bask in the sun's rays. Despite the ample evidence that tanning is harmful, however, it's a tough trend to counter, particularly for young people who might roll their eyes at a staid pamphlet in the doctor's office or a stern warning by their parents or school teachers.

Enter "Kesha."

In this parody, ZDoggMD urges viewers to stop artificial tanning.

The video (you really should watch it) was a key component of a pilot study recently conducted by dermatologist Eleni Linos, MD, and her research team. Linos has spent more than a decade studying the link between indoor tanning beds and cancer. She was concerned that almost one in five young adults and teens use tanning beds despite the fact that they almost double your risk of skin cancer. Linos and her team wondered whether social media might be a more effective way to sway teens and young adults to make smarter decisions about their health.

The results of a pilot study were published earlier this year in the British Journal of Dermatology. Research associate Lily Morrison, who works with Linos' research team was the first author of the study. 

As Linos explained:

 I have been intrigued for some time by the impact of social media on our society and its ability to influence individuals and entire populations. I was curious as to whether this influence could be used for good. The idea sounded wild when we started this work a few years ago: "What if checking Facebook could prevent you from getting cancer?" I asked in my first talk on this topic and the audience burst into laughter. 

In 2013, my team conducted a study of indoor tanning conversations on Twitter. We found that while young adults tweet about tanning beds often -- once every 8 seconds in fact -- they rarely mentioned harms like burns or skin cancer. We also studied conventional public health campaigns and found that the current approaches using old-fashioned techniques and scare tactics don't really work. We realized that we had an opportunity to change the messaging surrounding this carcinogen by engaging with young adults on social media.

Linos and her team posted three videos on Facebook: one that delivered a fact-based straightforward message about the dangers of tanning, another featuring popular YouTube and Instagram personality Lauren Giraldo urging against the practice, and a third produced by former Stanford internist Zubin Damania, MD, (aka ZDoggMD) featuring a humorous parody of the popular song 'Tik Tok' by the singer Kesha.

They found that the most successful videos (in terms of impressions and likes) belonged to Giraldo and ZDoggMD. "This supports our previous focus group finding that young people are more likely to engage with and share content that they can relate to and want to watch, rather than fear-based warnings," she said.

Linos and her colleagues plan additional studies to determine whether increased engagement with these or similar videos is likely to change tanning practices. If so, it might be possible to use similar methods to deliver a wide variety of public health messages, Linos believes.

"My goal is to radically shift our approach to cancer prevention," Linos said. "By reaching the right people, at the right time, with the right message in a cost-effective way, I think we can ultimately help people live healthier lives."

Photo by pixel2008

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