Journal of Medical Internet Research (Aug 2020)

When Public Health Research Meets Social Media: Knowledge Mapping From 2000 to 2018

  • Zhang, Yan,
  • Cao, Bolin,
  • Wang, Yifan,
  • Peng, Tai-Quan,
  • Wang, Xiaohua

Journal volume & issue
Vol. 22, no. 8
p. e17582


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BackgroundSocial media has substantially changed how people confront health issues. However, a comprehensive understanding of how social media has altered the foci and methods in public health research remains lacking. ObjectiveThis study aims to examine research themes, the role of social media, and research methods in social media–based public health research published from 2000 to 2018. MethodsA dataset of 3419 valid studies was developed by searching a list of relevant keywords in the Web of Science and PubMed databases. In addition, this study employs an unsupervised text-mining technique and topic modeling to extract research themes of the published studies. Moreover, the role of social media and research methods adopted in those studies were analyzed. ResultsThis study identifies 25 research themes, covering different diseases, various population groups, physical and mental health, and other significant issues. Social media assumes two major roles in public health research: produce substantial research interest for public health research and furnish a research context for public health research. Social media provides substantial research interest for public health research when used for health intervention, human-computer interaction, as a platform of social influence, and for disease surveillance, risk assessment, or prevention. Social media acts as a research context for public health research when it is mere reference, used as a platform to recruit participants, and as a platform for data collection. While both qualitative and quantitative methods are frequently used in this emerging area, cutting edge computational methods play a marginal role. ConclusionsSocial media enables scholars to study new phenomena and propose new research questions in public health research. Meanwhile, the methodological potential of social media in public health research needs to be further explored.