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Faculty-student research duo uncovers surprising ways to improve public health messaging

After two years of pandemic life, COVID fatigue is real. That goes for pandemic messaging, too, as people have grown weary of a barrage of statistics, shifting mandates, and guidance.

But recently published research by a TCNJ professor may hold lessons for effective public health communications going forward. Spoiler alert: it could involve TikTok dance videos.

“Forceful or controlling” messages seem less effective in communicating health messages — or motivating people to practice preventative behaviors or get vaccinated — than narratives and more entertaining content, said Yachao Li, assistant professor of communication studies and public health.

Li worked with colleagues in Arkansas in late 2020 to survey 744 adults and found messages with a lighter touch seemed to have more traction, no matter how grave the topic. “People were tired of hearing numbers,” he said. 

The researchers tracked reactions to news reports, social media posts, and interpersonal conversations. Many reactions ranged from inattentive to overtly negative. Respondents were especially fed up with hearing about mask wearing, according to the study, published in the online journal Health Communication.

Novel elements and appealing visuals helped, Li said, noting that “some COVID-19 campaigns have used animations and well-known cartoon characters to reiterate the need to follow preventive behaviors in a dynamic way.”  

Delivering messages via emerging social media, like TikTok, also proved engaging, said Li, whose students previously researched the stigmatization of COVID on Twitter. Public health agencies adapted quickly to adopt TikTok as the global rise of the new short-form video platform coincided with the bloom of the pandemic. TikTok is estimated to have a billion active users, most under age 35. 

Side by side photo of Yachao Li and Paige Hammond
Public health communication research team Li and Hammond

In another study that appeared in Health Education Research, Li, the Arkansas researchers, and TCNJ student Paige Hammond looked at 331 TikTok videos produced by non-governmental organizations like the Red Cross and World Health Organization. They tracked engagement by monitoring views, likes, comments and shares. 

Dance videos were the most popular, Li said. “The user-centered features of TikTok also encourage average people to create and disseminate health messages that may be considered more relatable and trustworthy,” he added.

A follow up study looked at how vaccine information was spread on TikTok, taking into account the role of hashtags and other tools to spread the message. It also looked at the quality of messages, with sometimes competing or contradictory information or viewpoints, such as the pro and anti-vaccine.

“That was really interesting because we were seeing how attitudes and behaviors were influenced by social media,” said Hammond ’23, a communications studies and public health major. “We got to apply what we learned in health communication classes.”

— Patricia Alex 


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