How social media could help combat sexual assault

How social media could help combat sexual assault

The CNN analysis is disturbing. The conclusions even more so. By combing through state and federal data, by interviewing both regulators and victims, and by reviewing cases that finally went to court, two CNN reporters paint a picture of sexual assault and abuse in the nation’s nursing homes that has been largely ignored, or simply unseen, by the rest of society.

As the story notes, “Despite the litany of abuses detailed in government reports, there is no comprehensive, national data on how many cases of sexual abuse have been reported in facilities housing the elderly.”

Often, the abuses aren’t reported. As Sean Young, executive director of the UC Institute for Prediction Technology and an associate professor in the UCLA Department of Family Medicine, points out, elders are often uncomfortable sharing such information with family or staff because of what they consider to be the stigmatizing nature of it.

That’s where social media can help.

“In our own research, we've found that people, including elders, will often use social media to share personal information that is often stigmatizing, like tweeting about sexual behaviors, abuse, and suicidal intentions,” Young said.

In a recent viewpoint published in the American Journal of Medical Quality, Young and his colleagues write about the power of social media to reduce sexual misconduct in medical facilities. They cast their eye most keenly on Twitter, but also Facebook and Yelp.

“Research has shown that patients are willing to provide their data and that they will actively share information relevant to their health on Twitter,” they write. “Twitter’s open application programming interface enables clinicians to monitor user activities, including the frequency and time of tweets. If a patient were to tweet specific words related to safety, such as strangergunhurt, or sex, the data would become part of their electronic health record and trigger heightened surveillance.”

Said Young in a separate interview: “In our viewpoint, we pitch the idea that social media may be used as a tool to help track issues like elder abuse. The current process has major limitations-- cases go unreported, and it takes too long to aggregate and share data on reported cases. Social media is an inexpensive tool that provides real-time data and might address many of the limitations of the current system.”

Calling attention to the problems within nursing homes – and the power of social media – is a necessary first step.

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