Background: Research studies involving health-related online communities have focused on examining network structure to understand mechanisms underlying behavior change. Content analysis of the messages exchanged in these communities has been limited to the "social support" perspective. However, existing behavior change theories suggest that message content plays a prominent role reflecting several sociocognitive factors that affect an individual's efforts to make a lifestyle change. An understanding of these factors is imperative to identify and harness the mechanisms of behavior change in the Health 2.0 era.
Objective: The objective of this work is two-fold: (1) to harness digital communication data to capture essential meaning of communication and factors affecting a desired behavior change, and (2) to understand the applicability of existing behavior change theories to characterize peer-to-peer communication in online platforms.
Methods: In this paper, we describe grounded theory-based qualitative analysis of digital communication in QuitNet, an online community promoting smoking cessation. A database of 16,492 de-identified public messages from 1456 users from March 1-April 30, 2007, was used in our study. We analyzed 795 messages using grounded theory techniques to ensure thematic saturation. This analysis enabled identification of key concepts contained in the messages exchanged by QuitNet members, allowing us to understand the sociobehavioral intricacies underlying an individual's efforts to cease smoking in a group setting. We further ascertained the relevance of the identified themes to theoretical constructs in existing behavior change theories (eg, Health Belief Model) and theoretically linked techniques of behavior change taxonomy.
Results: We identified 43 different concepts, which were then grouped under 12 themes based on analysis of 795 messages. Examples of concepts include "sleepiness," "pledge," "patch," "spouse," and "slip." Examples of themes include "traditions," "social support," "obstacles," "relapse," and "cravings." Results indicate that themes consisting of member-generated strategies such as "virtual bonfires" and "pledges" were related to the highest number of theoretical constructs from the existing behavior change theories. In addition, results indicate that the member-generated communication content supports sociocognitive constructs from more than one behavior change model, unlike the majority of the existing theory-driven interventions.
Conclusions: With the onset of mobile phones and ubiquitous Internet connectivity, online social network data reflect the intricacies of human health behavior as experienced by health consumers in real time. This study offers methodological insights for qualitative investigations that examine the various kinds of behavioral constructs prevalent in the messages exchanged among users of online communities. Theoretically, this study establishes the manifestation of existing behavior change theories in QuitNet-like online health communities. Pragmatically, it sets the stage for real-time, data-driven sociobehavioral interventions promoting healthy lifestyle modifications by allowing us to understand the emergent user needs to sustain a desired behavior change.
Keywords: behavior change; online social media; smoking cessation; web interventions.