Does the picture really matter ?

Images for health and safety on social media should match the message being conveyed.

This may seem an obvious thing to state but far too many posts on social media which are there to give public health and safety messages feature images that do not match the central point of the message.

Parents of young children were better able to recall safety messages on social media such as how to put a baby safely to sleep when the images in the posts aligned with the messages in the text, researchers have found.

Liz Klein, an associate professor of public health at The Ohio State University, who led the research said:

“Many times, scientists and safety experts aren’t involved in decisions about social media for health agencies and other organizations, and Researchers found that parents understood safety messaging better when the picture showed the desired behavior, such as a baby in a bumper-free crib. Credit The Ohio State University

Take the safe sleep example, for instance. The researchers found posts that advocated a bumper-free cot for a baby but used an image of an infant in a cot with bumpers. They saw posts about preventing head injury with bike helmets illustrated by pictures of kids without bike helmets.

Researchers found that parents understood safety messaging better when the picture showed the desired behavior, such as a baby in a bumper-free crib. Credit The Ohio State University

Liz Klein explained:

“In this study, we were trying to understand how much those mismatches matter — do people understand the message even if the picture isn’t right? Does the picture really matter?”

Their answers came from research using eye-tracking technology to gauge the attention young parents paid to various posts, and subsequent tests to see what they recalled about the safety messages.

When the 150 parents in the study were shown a trio of posts with matched imagery and text and three other posts with mismatched visual and written messages, they spent far longer on the matched posts — 5.3 seconds, compared to the 3.3 seconds their eyes lingered on the mismatched posts.

Further, the matched messages appeared to make a difference in understanding and recall of safety messages. After accounting for differences in health literacy and social media use among participants, the researchers found that each second of viewing time on matched posts was associated with a 2.8% increase in a safety knowledge score.

“As more health organizations and public health agencies use social media to share health information with the public, the findings of our study underscore the need to ensure that the imagery and text in social media posts are aligned,” commented Lara McKenzie of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus.

Klein said she understands that those managing social media accounts may be drawn to images that are the most attention-grabbing. But when it comes to health and safety, this study suggests that making sure the image and the text are sending the same message is more important.

“If you want people to put their medicine up and out of reach of children, kids to wear their bike helmets or new parents to remember that babies should always go to sleep on their backs, alone and in a crib — that’s where matching matters. Maybe save the eye-grabbing stuff and the humorous posts for different purposes.”

“We need to pay more attention to how we communicate with the people we’re trying to influence with health and safety guidance. All of us can do a better job of thinking about how we use our social media accounts to contribute to better public health,” she said.

The study was published in the Journal of Health Communication.

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