JMIR Public Health and Surveillance (Nov 2020)

Social Media as a Research Tool (SMaaRT) for Risky Behavior Analytics: Methodological Review

  • Singh, Tavleen,
  • Roberts, Kirk,
  • Cohen, Trevor,
  • Cobb, Nathan,
  • Wang, Jing,
  • Fujimoto, Kayo,
  • Myneni, Sahiti

Journal volume & issue
Vol. 6, no. 4
p. e21660


Read online

BackgroundModifiable risky health behaviors, such as tobacco use, excessive alcohol use, being overweight, lack of physical activity, and unhealthy eating habits, are some of the major factors for developing chronic health conditions. Social media platforms have become indispensable means of communication in the digital era. They provide an opportunity for individuals to express themselves, as well as share their health-related concerns with peers and health care providers, with respect to risky behaviors. Such peer interactions can be utilized as valuable data sources to better understand inter-and intrapersonal psychosocial mediators and the mechanisms of social influence that drive behavior change. ObjectiveThe objective of this review is to summarize computational and quantitative techniques facilitating the analysis of data generated through peer interactions pertaining to risky health behaviors on social media platforms. MethodsWe performed a systematic review of the literature in September 2020 by searching three databases—PubMed, Web of Science, and Scopus—using relevant keywords, such as “social media,” “online health communities,” “machine learning,” “data mining,” etc. The reporting of the studies was directed by the PRISMA (Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses) guidelines. Two reviewers independently assessed the eligibility of studies based on the inclusion and exclusion criteria. We extracted the required information from the selected studies. ResultsThe initial search returned a total of 1554 studies, and after careful analysis of titles, abstracts, and full texts, a total of 64 studies were included in this review. We extracted the following key characteristics from all of the studies: social media platform used for conducting the study, risky health behavior studied, the number of posts analyzed, study focus, key methodological functions and tools used for data analysis, evaluation metrics used, and summary of the key findings. The most commonly used social media platform was Twitter, followed by Facebook, QuitNet, and Reddit. The most commonly studied risky health behavior was nicotine use, followed by drug or substance abuse and alcohol use. Various supervised and unsupervised machine learning approaches were used for analyzing textual data generated from online peer interactions. Few studies utilized deep learning methods for analyzing textual data as well as image or video data. Social network analysis was also performed, as reported in some studies. ConclusionsOur review consolidates the methodological underpinnings for analyzing risky health behaviors and has enhanced our understanding of how social media can be leveraged for nuanced behavioral modeling and representation. The knowledge gained from our review can serve as a foundational component for the development of persuasive health communication and effective behavior modification technologies aimed at the individual and population levels.