Online social networks can effectively help smokers kick the butt, especially if users are active participants, a study has found. Researchers from the University of Iowa (IU) and Truth Initiative, a nonprofit organisation in the US, examined the tobacco use of over 2,600 smokers who participated in a social network called ‘BecomeAnEX’, which they created in 2008. They found that 21 per cent of those classified as active users after their first week in the community reported that they quit smoking three months later. Those who were less active in the community were less likely to quit. “How central you become in the online social network after the first week is a good indicator of whether you will quit smoking,” said Kang Zhao, assistant professor at UI. “This is the first study to look at smokers’ behaviours in an online community over time and to report a prospective relationship between social network involvement and quitting smoking,” said Zhao. The BecomeAnEX website enables members to share information and support through blogs, forums and messages. Although the site is focused on smoking cessation, users can post on any topic. More than 800,000 users have registered since the site launched in 2008.
The study constructed a large-scale social network based on users’ posting habits. A key finding was that increasing integration into the social network was a significant predictor of subsequent abstinence, researchers said. Three months after joining the BecomeAnEX social network, users who stayed involved on the site were more likely to have quit smoking when researchers contacted them to assess their smoking status. After three months, 21 per cent of active users – or those who actively contributed content in the community – quit smoking.
About 11 per cent of passive users – those who only read others’ posts – quit smoking; and only eight per cent of study participants that never visited quit smoking. “Spending time with others who are actively engaged in quitting smoking in a place where being a nonsmoker is supported and encouraged gives smokers the practical advice and support they need to stay with a difficult behaviour change,” said Amanda Graham, senior vice president, Innovations, of Truth Initiative. “We know that quitting tobacco can be extremely difficult. These results demonstrate what we hear from tobacco users, which is that online social connections and relationships can make a real difference,” said Graham.