Social media becomes healthy

Screenshot Recruitment for weight loss studyTechnology, if not used wisely, can have a problematic effect. However, one group at CAHNR is collaborating with those in other disciplines to find ways that mobile communication devices can help people improve their health, such as in losing weight and reducing the risk of cancer.

Maximizing mHealth at UConn

A general term for the use of mobile phones and other wireless technology in health care is called mobile health or mHealth, for short. UConn’s efforts are conducted in the Center for mHealth and Social Media.

The Center’s director, Professor Sherry Pagoto, says that the Center has core missions of interdisciplinary research methodology, technology and training. Various experts from UConn and off campus, such as engineers, behavioral scientists, physicians and computer scientists, “collaborate to tackle health problems from different angles,” Pagoto said. The Center also provides expertise in grant writing and creating collaborations.

Pagoto is the principal investigator or co-investigator for numerous ongoing grants and is on the faculty of the Department of Allied Health Sciences (AHS). As part of an mHealth research group, she works on understanding how to use technology tools in weight loss and cancer prevention, specifically.

“Dr. Pagoto is a trailblazer. She is leading efforts nationally to use technology, and in particular social media and mobile devices, to help prevent and better manage costly chronic disease. She is also building important bridges between academics and industry, getting them to partner together to increase the relevance and innovation in graduate training in behavioral and social sciences,” said AHS Department Head and Professor Justin Nash.

Sherry Pagoto

The availability of online health advice is growing day-by-day, but researchers know that not all of it is from expert sources. Center staff want to deliver the health messages in the most effective way. UConn researchers are asking, “Is technology successful in impacting clinical and health-related outputs?” So far, the results seem promising.

Helping people lose weight via Facebook

For example, the Center recently completed a study that used social media platforms to interface with those who wanted to lose weight. In this research, 25 to 50 people received health messaging and interaction with a weight loss counselor via a private Facebook group for three months, according to Pagoto. The participants were sent two Facebook feed posts a day, which discussed making time for exercise, stress strategies and other weight loss topics. There were weekly goal setting and weigh-in days.

In addition, individuals were able to interact with a professional weight loss counselor at their fingertips. Pagoto sees this as a bonus for busy people, who often don’t have time or money to spend at regular appointments. She describes this social media method as “more access for less effort.”

A positive result was that the social media group supported one another and worked together to manage their weight. Many of them reported weight loss, as well.

Additional participants are needed for a new weight loss program, which is delivered via smart phones and a Facebook group. Nutrition and exercise counseling will be provided. For more details, call 860-486-8480 or

Mentoring moms with a message

Pagoto’s group is currently using Facebook in another research project focused on cancer prevention. She hopes to reduce the prevalence of indoor tanning by teenage girls by reaching their mothers through social media.

Pagoto says that one risk factor for skin cancer is the use of tanning beds, and that 15- to 25-year-olds are the most frequent visitors to indoor tanning facilities. Some states ban minors from using them while others allow visits with parental permission.

Therefore, it is important to reach moms, as role models and gatekeepers, with cancer prevention education. As a result, Pagoto says she hopes to discourage permissiveness for tanning among mothers and to encourage the establishment of lifelong healthy habits in the daughters.

Hundreds of moms nationwide are involved in the study. They receive information about the risk of tanning as well as other health topics, such as the HPV vaccine, good nutrition and the dangers of smoking. Participants also learn to confidently address issues with their daughters when conversation becomes difficult. Pagoto said, “We give moms a tool for discussions, and we want both moms and daughters to make health decisions based on the best available evidence.”

Results are measured by comparing answers on end-of-program surveys with answers to questions in the beginning surveys, which both mothers and daughters fill out.

In the future, the Center will continue to study the best ways to leverage social media to deliver health promotion programs.  Some of the questions being asked are “Where can we use social media in different ways to promote health?” and “What changes people’s behavior?” Pagoto sums it up this way, “How can we communicate health messages that people understand and that move them to do something different?”

The UConn Center for mHealth and Social Media is housed within the Institute for Collaboration on Health, Intervention, and Policy (InCHIP), which has a multi-disciplinary focus on health behavior and policy.

Research mentioned in this article

Feasibility trial of a problem-solving weight loss mobile application was supported by NIDDK grant #R21DK098556, $470,817, (completed).

Likes, Pins and Views: Engaging Moms on Teen Indoor Tanning Thru Social Media is supported by NIH/NCI grant #1R01CA192652-01, $1,015,514.

By Patsy Evans