Safety messages on social media are far more effective if they include matching images

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Not all messages on social media are worthy of everyone’s attention or time. However, if you’re sculpting some social media posts intended to point people toward healthier and safer behavior, a new study finds pictures may get your point across better than words. Researchers from the Ohio State University conclude it is essential for safety-centric social media messages to add an image that matches the words in the post.

Their study reveals a group of parents raising small children could recall social media posts regarding how to safely put a baby to sleep much more efficiently when images in those posts matched up with the wording of the message.

“Many times, scientists and safety experts aren’t involved in decisions about social media for health agencies and other organizations, and we end up seeing images that have nothing to do with the safety message or, worse, images that contradict the guidance,” says lead study author and OSU associate professor of public health Liz Klein in a university release.

A mismatch can sink your message

During the experiment, parents sometimes viewed images that didn’t mesh with the message of the post. For example, a post about a bumper-free baby crib featuring an image of a crib with bumpers. Similarly, some posts focused on stopping head injuries by wearing a helmet while biking but featured an image of kids riding bikes with no helmets.

“In this study, we were trying to understand how much those mismatches matter — do people understand the message even if the picture isn’t right? Does the picture really matter?” Klein explains.

Besides just gauging how parents react to mismatched posts, researchers also measured each participant’s attention using eye tracking technology.

In all, 150 parents took part in this project. Each person viewed three posts with matching imagery and verbiage and three posts with mismatched images. Parents spent an average of 5.3 seconds looking at the matching posts, but only 3.3 seconds on the mismatched posts. Viewing time appears to be very important, as researchers say for every additional second spent viewing a post, participants’ safety knowledge scores increased by 2.8 percent.

“With nearly 70% of adults reporting use of social media, and many parents using social media and other internet sources to keep current on injury prevention strategies, social media is a great opportunity to broadcast safety and injury prevention messages,” notes study co-author Lara McKenzie, a principal investigator in the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus. “As more health organizations and public health agencies use social media to share health information with the public, the findings of our study underscore the need to ensure that the imagery and text in social media posts are aligned.”

Taking what’s eye-catching over what’s important

Researchers say social media account managers tend to go for the most visually striking or attention grabbing image. When it comes to safety messaging however, it’s a better idea to prioritize accuracy.

“If you want people to put their medicine up and out of reach of children, kids to wear their bike helmets or new parents to remember that babies should always go to sleep on their backs, alone and in a crib — that’s where matching matters. Maybe save the eye-grabbing stuff and the humorous posts for different purposes,” Klein adds.

These findings don’t just apply to child safety measures. Researchers believe their work is applicable to any number of safety-related social media discussions.

“We need to pay more attention to how we communicate with the people we’re trying to influence with health and safety guidance. All of us can do a better job of thinking about how we use our social media accounts to contribute to better public health,” Klein concludes.

The study is published in the Journal of Health Communication.

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