selfie
Tawny Dzierzek posted this photo on Facebook in 2015 of her face after skin cancer treatment.

Sharing a disease or health condition online has become second nature to many. Some of these social media posts have even gone viral after readers become moved by a person’s story.

But deciphering how these posts affect people in the real world can be unclear. Now, medical researchers have examined the effect of a single selfie in the hope they can figure out how social media can be harnessed to help public health.

A recent study published in the journal Preventive Medicine found that when a selfie by a woman being treated for skin cancer went viral, it had a tremendous impact on people searching for information on skin cancer and how to prevent it.

In 2015, Tawny Dzierzek took a picture of her bloodied face after a skin cancer treatment. The Kentucky nurse had spent her teen years using tanning beds. She received her first skin cancer diagnosis at 21.

“If anyone needs a little motivation to not lay in the tanning bed and sun here ya go! This is what skin cancer treatment can look like,” Dzierzek wrote in the post.

Sharing and spreading the word

Seth Noar, PhD, a professor in the University of North Carolina School of Media and Journalism and lead author of the study, said the selfie was shared so many times it started to make news headlines.

He pointed out that this wasn’t a celebrity or someone with thousands of online followers. It was just someone with a clear story and powerful image.

“I thought, wow, that’s really interesting, and I wonder if it had impact out there in the world,” he told Healthline. “Can we learn something from that in terms of ways to communicate about the dangers of indoor tanning?”

Despite many studies finding indoor tanning dangerous and a carcinogen, 7 percent of high school students tan and 32 percent of non-Hispanic white women between the ages of 18 to 21 use tanning beds, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Dermatologists have long warned patients to stay away from indoor tanning facilities, but with limited success.

Noar found that the selfie originally posted on Facebook received 50,000 shares within a few weeks, leading to another website covering the story. Within a month, there had been 117 news stories about the selfie.

At the same time, he found that web searches with the terms “skin” and “cancer” increased. These searches were 162 percent higher than expected when the news stories on the selfie peaked, about a month after Dzierzek first posted.

Searches involving skin cancer prevention also surged around this time, increasing 147 percent as news spread about Dzierzek’s selfie.

While Noar can’t be certain how many people were motivated to shun tanning beds, he said he was intrigued at the spike of people who wanted to know more about preventing skin cancer.

“What surprised me is an ordinary person could post this on social media and it could go viral and have such an impact on people seeking out information on skin cancer and skin cancer prevention,” Noar said.

Reaching young people

Experts say they hope this kind of post could be used in the future to get teens to stay away from tanning beds.

Dr. Barney Kenet, a New York-based dermatologist, said that it can be hard to get teens to take doctors’ advice. This could be another way to influence them.

“Here you have a member of the community speaking to peers that’s perhaps a message what will resonate,” Kenet said.

He said it’s different than the “dogmatic” advice from a doctor.

Kenet said he’s all for using the most effective way of getting the attention of teens and young adults.

“I think it’s a great form of communication as long as there’s no misinformation there,” he said. “Convincing people to not use tanning beds — that’s a definite win for everyone as far as I’m concerned.”

Dr. Michele Green, a dermatologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, said it can be difficult to reach teenagers before they start using tanning beds.

She often sees people in their 20s who had been using tanning beds in their teens and are now concerned about skin cancer.

“They think they’re going to live forever and nothing bad is going to happen to them,” she said. “What scares them more is terrible acne or… they start to get wrinkles.”

Green said these posts from people that teens may consider peers could be a good way to reach young adults, who might otherwise ignore the warnings.

“The day of the selfie is here and here forever,” she said. “That’s what people look at, so they’re doing a service to show that [cancer damage] instead of the beach shot.”