This study conducted a survey to identify why pregnant women use social media as a source for health information, the topics they want to obtain information about according to their stage of pregnancy, and the effects of obtaining support from social media.

Social media as information source during pregnancy

In this study, 72.8% of participants used social media for pregnancy-related health information. Social media and search engines ranked highest in the same rankings, followed by friends (59.6%), and health professionals (49.3%). According to a study by Lupton and Maslen [11] that focused on Australian women’s use of digital technologies for health (not limited to specific health problems), healthcare providers and online sources were the most used health information sources. The most frequently used online sources were search engines (100%), whereas social media accounted for 33% of use. The results of our study showed that the use of social media was higher than that in the Lupton and Maslen [11], which might be attributed to the characteristic of Korean who would be more likely to trust and use social internet sites [2]. No previous studies have numerically compared the use of social media related to pregnancy, but many studies have confirmed women’s dependence on social media and the positive effects of social media use during pregnancy [3, 12, 19]. In a study comparing the United States, Korea, and Hong Kong for the use of health information sources [2], Korea showed the highest internet use for health information. Compared to the United States, which frequently uses online professional health sites, Korea uses blogs, and Hong Kong frequently used social networking sites. This can support the finding of high social media use by pregnant Korean women in the current study.

In this study, the demographic difference between the social media user and non-user groups appeared only in eHEALS, an indicator of the ability to use online information for health. Lupton and Maslen [11] stated that women’s digital health use was not related to education level or region but was more related to age, whether they had children, or whether they had family members with health problems. It can be interpreted that the social media use rate of women going through the experiences of pregnancy and childbirth is high, regardless of demographic characteristics.

In the question of why participants use social media, “to get information quickly,” “to get new information” or “to get applicable information,” and “to get emotional support” were ranked high. Chuang and Yang [5] analyzed the effects of social media as informational support and nurturant support and emphasized the importance of both for addressing health problems. The patterns of information and nurturant support differed depending on health topics or communication formats. In this study, both forms of support were confirmed as important for pregnant women.

The advantages of obtaining information through social media are: online information can be accessed quickly and easily compared to consultation with a health professional, and it provides a huge amount of detailed information compared to books and educational materials. Pregnant women feel that social media as an information source helps them in their personal decision-making process [20]. In addition, because pregnant women feel that asking healthcare professionals questions during appointments would bother them, or feel that communication with healthcare professionals is improved if they are informed in advance, they gather information in advance through social media [9, 15]. During pregnancy, positive emotions can be felt while sharing experiences with other women in similar situations through social media (reassurance), assuring yourself that you are not alone, and confirming that there is no problem with fetal development (normalized) [14]. Particularly, social media is more attractive to users because they can both create and obtain information. By writing new posts or exchanging comments, pregnant women feel connected to others and reduce anxiety about being isolated due to pregnancy [12, 21]. Additionally, it was found that more emotional support is needed when experiencing stress and confusion, and that expressing one’s emotions is more helpful [5].

Interested topics by pregnancy stage

In this study, the participants were asked to describe the topics that they were interested in over the past two weeks. The answers were classified and compared according to pregnancy stage.

Pregnancy-related symptoms were ranked first regardless of the stage of pregnancy. Unlike other health problems, pregnancy symptoms include both normal- and high-risk symptoms. It is very difficult for first-time pregnant women to distinguish whether their symptoms are normal, leading to very high anxiety levels. A large amount of experience-based information on social media is needed to feel relieved.

Compared to the first and second trimesters of pregnancy with a variety of curious topics, the third trimester showed a tendency to focus on a few topics directly related to childbirth. Mood related topics appeared in the first trimester and post-partum stage. It is thus possible to identify the period during which emotional support of pregnant women is most needed.

A high interest in postpartum care, diet, and medication is interpreted as a characteristic of Korean or Asian women. It is well known that Asian women’s beliefs in postpartum care differ from those of Western women [22]. Especially in Korea, postpartum care methods such as postpartum care centers and postpartum caregivers are very popular [23]. Therefore, there was high interest in sharing experiences about what kind of postpartum care worked well across all stages of pregnancy. Compared to the topics of interest in Baker and Yang [12] study, which showed “pregnancy” as 76.9%, “childbirth” as 39.3%, and “healthy living” as 26.5%, and in the study by Sharifi, Amiri-Farahani [24], which showed the highest score with “fetal care” and “physical health”, in this study, “interest in health living” was high (48.7%) and there were many topics about what to eat and possible medication use, especially in early pregnancy. Lee, Park [13] reported that Koreans attach great importance to what they should eat during disease management. A study conducted in Germany [15] found that women had higher health and nutritional awareness than men. These findings can explain the interest in diet among pregnant Korean women. A strength of this study is that it compares the topics of interest by stage and thus the results of this study can be used to deliver high-quality information appropriate for each pregnancy stage.

Satisfaction with informational support or emotional support by topic

Informational support was high in “daily life” and “antenatal screening tests,” while emotional support was high in topics related to family stories and emotions during pregnancy.

One interesting result was that the emotional support effect was high for the family topic in this study. Similarly, in a study conducted in China [3], there were many mentions of husbands and mothers-in-law or mothers during pregnancy, which was interpreted as a different result from the US. Sharing these private or sensitive topics seems to give them fun or lessen their anger [4].

This result suggests the need to classify topics as those that either strengthen the reliability of information or strengthen the sharing of experiences and feelings.

Practical implications

Practical implications based on the results are suggested as follows.

Pregnant women require a combination of information and emotional support, and the importance of reliability, promptness, and empathy varies depending on the topic. There are topics that require prompt answers, topics that require the accumulation of diverse and detailed personal experiences, and topics that require expertise-based comments. Therefore, it is necessary to use different content or platforms. For topics that require more emotional support, a platform with many participant comments or replies would be useful.

Second, it is necessary to consider how to utilize the advantages of social media to provide reliable health information from health professionals. Influential social media can disseminate as much expertise-based information as possible to many pregnant women. However, it should be monitored to ensure that the information does not become distorted.

Third, experience-based information accumulated thus far through social media can be used to grasp the needs or interests of pregnant women. Just as a search engine detects local epidemics using search engine query data, posts on social media can be used as important data [25].

Limitation

In this study, it is difficult to generalize the results because it involved a limited number of participants in Korea through snowball sampling. The high rates of online and social media use among Korean women should be considered. It is also necessary to understand the cultural background of Asian women’s pregnancies and childbirths. Therefore, it is desirable to conduct a study targeting a wider area and larger number of participants in the future. This enables the effective delivery of reliable health content using social media’s growing popularity.

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