Welcome to the Digital Health Promotion Executive Leadership Summit!

Figuring out how to make our digital technologies health promoting is one of the key public health challenges of the 21st century. Social media has become a dominant force in people’s lives, affecting daily habits and patterns in most US adults. In some ways, there are exciting public health opportunities from this—new ways of reaching people with public health messages, new types of programs that connect people for public health purposes such as blood donation, new ways of giving and receiving social support in coping with health problems, and new platforms to receive behavioral counseling for health behavior change (e.g. Twitter groups aimed at smoking cessation). On the other hand, health studies have also indicated that social media use over time is associated with decreases in physical and mental well-being (and unlike in-person socializing). In addition, social media sites have been implicated in abetting the opioid epidemic, promoting thin ideals and anorexic communities to support them, and in the spread of false information about vaccines.

The challenge for us concerned about public health is to harness these technologies for good, while reigning them in where they appear detrimental. This is especially challenging because these platforms are private and have opaque and fast-changing algorithms dictating the content to which users are exposed. While these sites have Terms of Use and Community Guidelines that for the most part promote ideals consistent with public health goals (e.g. prohibiting the posting of content related to the sale of illegal substances, child pornography, violent behavior, the promotion of eating disorders, and hate speech), the Terms are difficult to enforce and often not enforced. Coupled with this are the challenges inherent in that social media sites are run by for profit companies who derive revenue from ads and other ways of monetizing their users data.

How do we do Health Promotion in this context? How do we structure social media platforms so they are health promoting? These are big questions and ones that will take a cross-sectoral approach to address, requiring the involvement and cooperation of social media sites, government, and public health experts. This need for collaboration across sectors was the impetus for the establishment of the Digital Health Promotion Executive Leadership Summit.

The Summit aims to identify tangible opportunities for collaboration across the public and private sectors in applications of digital technology to improve public health. The Summit also aims to highlight the need for oversight especially around public health topics like suicidality and the spread of health-related misinformation (e.g. vaccine information). Inherent in these conversations are difficult ethical issues such as those dealing with the balance of free speech and public health and the role of social media in our society.

What does success look like? Its government agencies having on-going collaborations and partnerships with social media companies to advance key public health issues; Its scholarship that examines the positive and negative effects of social media use; Its public health communication campaigns on social media platforms that are evaluated and improved over time. And its private social media companies recognizing that they occupy a vital public space and acting more like a public utility than solely a for profit enterprise. Some have argued that just as limiting tobacco consumption was the key public health challenge of the 20th century and creating effective hygiene and sanitation systems was of the 19th century, figuring out how to harness social media is the defining public health challenge of our century.

Lorien Abroms, ScD
Summit Co-Chair

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