Social media has been widely adopted by young adults, consequently health researchers are looking for ways to leverage this engagement with social media for the delivery of interventions and health promotion campaigns. Weight gain and sub-optimal dietary choices are common in young adults, and social media may be a potential tool to facilitate and support healthier choices.
We conducted a mixed-methods systematic review of studies examining social media use for nutrition-related outcomes in young adults. Seven databases [EBscohost, ERIC, ProQuest Central, PubMed, Ovid, Scopus, and Emerald] were systematically searched; 1225 abstracts were screened, and 47 full-text articles were assessed for eligibility. Study designs included both quantitative, such as experimental and observational studies, and qualitative, such as focus groups and interviews, approaches. Quality was assessed using the Mixed Methods Appraisal Tool. Quantitative and qualitative results were examined separately, and then synthesized.
Twenty-one studies were included although their use of social media was highly variable. The main purpose of social media was to provide information and social support to participants. In the nine randomized controlled trials, social media was used as one aspect of a multi-faceted intervention. Interventions had a positive statistically significant impact on nutritional outcomes in 1/9 trials. Engagement with the social media component of interventions varied, from 3 to 69%. Young adults appear to be open to receiving healthy eating and recipe tips through social media, however, they are reluctant to share personal weight-related information on their online social networks.
Information-dissemination is now an acceptable use of social media by young adults. Using social media effectively for social support, either via private groups or public pages, requires careful evaluation as its effectiveness is yet to be demonstrated in experimental designs. Concerns about public social media use may be a contributing factor to poor engagement with social media in research intervention studies aimed at influencing weight. Future research should consider how to best engage with young adults using social media, how to more effectively use social media to support young adults and to facilitate social and peer-to-peer support in making healthier choices.