Viral post on social media increases awareness of skin health, cancer risks

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Researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill have published a study in Preventive Medicine that examined social media as an effective route in generating awareness about skin cancer.

In April 2015, a nurse from Kentucky shared a selfie on Facebook after skin cancer treatment. Before long, the post had been shared more than 50,000 times and media outlets began picking up the story. This study examined how the popularity of the post proved to be an effective tool in increasing awareness about skin cancer.

"A growing body of research shows that stories can be very impactful—more impactful than didactic information—in delivering a health message," said UNC Lineberger's Seth Noar, PhD, a professor in the UNC School of Media and Journalism and the study's lead author. "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."

The study evaluated Facebook shares, media coverage and Google trends for the words “skin” and “cancer” from the date the photo was posted though when media coverage had peaked and declined. Results showed all queries for skin cancer had increased 162 percent compared to historical trends and had increased 155 percent when media coverage about the selfie was at its highest.

"In practical terms, this translated into about 200,000 more Google searches than would otherwise have been expected in just those six days," said study co-author John W. Ayers, PhD, MA, of San Diego State University.

Additionally, the popularity of the story increased online searchers for skin cancer prevention by 232 percent while queries about skin cancer and tanning were 489 percent higher.

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