Study: Words should match the pictures when broadcasting social media safety messages

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When using social media to nudge people toward safe and healthy behaviors, it’s critical to make sure the words match the pictures, according to a new study.

After looking at social media posts, parents of young children were better able to recall safety messages such as how to put a baby safely to sleep when the images in the posts aligned with the messages in the text, the researchers found.

The study appears in the Journal of Health Communication.

Take the safe sleep example, for instance. The researchers found posts that advocated a bumper-free crib for baby but used an image of an infant in a crib with bumpers. They saw posts about preventing head injury with bike helmets illustrated by pictures of kids without bike 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 said.

Their answers came from research using eye-tracking technology to gauge the attention young parents paid to various posts, and subsequent tests to see what they recalled about the safety messages.

When the 150 parents in the study were shown a trio of posts with matched imagery and text and three other posts with mismatched visual and written messages, they spent far longer on the matched posts — 5.3 seconds, compared to the 3.3 seconds their eyes lingered on the mismatched posts.

Further, the matched messages appeared to make a difference in understanding and recall of safety messages. After accounting for differences in health literacy and social media use among participants, the researchers found that each second of viewing time on matched posts was associated with a 2.8% increase in a safety knowledge score.

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