“Share” to change attitudes towards health promotion

by Vasiliki Mylonopoulou

“Why does it feels impossible to follow my new routine on eating, excising, relaxing, etc?” I always wondered until a year ago – when I started my PhD. Apparently, behavior change at will is a long proc
ess. When we try to change we pass through several physical and mental stages, and the risk of relapse always lurks. Technological applications can support our behavior change through social influence (the influence of others on our behavior as Aronson describes). In my research I focus on a small part of social influence called social comparison: the comparison between ourselves and others similar to us.

I started my PhD by conducting a literature review on 11 technological applications that include social comparison features and target behavior change. What I was looking for? The relation between the behavior change stage and the place the technology was designed to be used.

The main findings of the literature review was that technology targeting behavior change and designed to be used in different places may influence differently people who are in different behavior change stages. More specifically, technologies designed for public use had effect on people in the first stage i.e. promote awareness and reflection. Technologies design for private use had effect on people in later stages by helping them keep track of their activities, and motivating them. Finally, technologies designed for semi-public environment had effect on people in later stages of the behavior change process but they can also influence people in the first stages under certain circumstances.

The literature review was published and the whole process helped me reflect on the reviewed articles in different ways than only the place of the technology and its effects on the different stages on behavior change. For example only 3 out of 11 applications were related to health behavior change! All of which were designed to influence mainly later stages of the behavior change! What is happening in the first stages? How can people increase their awareness on health and health promotion?

In order to trigger behavior change, the person must first became aware of the need for change. Yes, smoking is bad for health, easy to “diagnose” if someone is a smoker, and applications can help smokers to quit. How about hidden or invisible disabilities, mental conditions, STDs and other health related issues which are difficult to diagnose or marginalized in some societies? For example there are mobile applications to help with depression but how will I understand if I am depressed? How will I accept that I am depressed? What will people think of me, if I visit a psychologist or psychiatrist?

It is understandable that using publicly placed technology may raise privacy issues especially for health conditions but what if it can be used anonymously? What if the publicly placed technology could show anonymous data to people, make them see that are not the only ones with “this problem”, or that the difficulties they may face in their daily life are due to a condition they were not aware of, or that “this condition” is not as rare as people thought etc. In that way publicly placed technology may help in the first stages in health related issues, it may help raise awareness and save lives.