On-line version ISSN 2078-5135
SAMJ, S. Afr. med. j. vol.99 n.11 Cape Town Nov. 2009
Facebook is smoking
To the Editor: As part of our Family Medicine rotation at a community health centre, we were struck by the number of patients who had started smoking at a very young age, some as young as 5 or 6 years old! These patients present in their late 20s and 30s with significant chronic lung disease. We were motivated to look into this public health tragedy as our group project.
The latest Cochrane review on the subject reveals the dismal fact that there is very limited evidence that any interventions up to now have been successful in curbing the long-term smoking habits of young people.
It was clear that something new and fresh was needed. An informal study of a class of Grade 8 learners showed that although most learners knew that smoking was 'bad for you', the learners were less knowledgeable about specific effects and many were keen to stop smoking but weren't sure how to go about it.
After discussion on a viable intervention strategy, we felt that something 'cool' and innovative was called for. Step forward 'Mr Butt', a Facebook character based on a fictional 14year-old boy. This champion of quitting smoking is everyone's pal and can be added as a friend on this vastly popular networking tool. Mr Butt's group on Facebook, 'Mr Butt wants everyone to quit smoking', is a source of information to learners about smoking, its dangers, and ideas on quitting the habit. Learners were informed about their new online friend and his group and encouraged to seek further information via him by accessing the web on their cell phones.
Much of the existing literature concludes that social support is a vital component of quitting smoking, and the Facebook interface provides us with the opportunity to give support to adolescents dealing with problems that may not be easy to share with family or face to face with peers. The Internet and its various social networking websites could perhaps be the next step in breaking through to teenagers in terms of health promotion.
Fictional Facebook, Mxit and Twitter characters and their groups could be used by doctors and the health authorities to get through to this traditionally neglected age group, the teenager in the corner playing on his cell phone.
University of Cape Town, MB ChB VI