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Seattle Children’s Research Institute researcher Dr. Jason Mendoza. (Seattle Children’s Photo)

We’re all familiar with Facebook and Fitbit — they’re convenient technologies that make our lives a bit easier.

But scientists at Seattle Children’s Research Institute are hoping those technologies could help solve a very specific need: helping childhood cancer survivors stay healthy.

A new study led by researcher and physician Dr. Jason Mendoza tested the idea by enrolling 60 childhood cancer survivors in a pilot program that used Fitbit tracking and a Facebook support group to encourage them to be more physically active. The study, published in the journal Pediatric Blood & Cancer on Thursday, found that patients were receptive to this kind of program, and very early data indicated that the technologies might have the desired effect.

Mendoza told GeekWire that the approach could help childhood cancer survivors overcome difficult odds.

“With improvements in cancer care, children are surviving cancers at very high rates,” Mendoza said. But unfortunately, “it turns out some of the regiments they endure and, of course, some of the cancers that they battle can compromise their long-term health.”

Childhood cancer survivors tend to be less healthy than the general population and face higher rates of conditions diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity. One part of the puzzle is physical activity: they also tend to be less physically active than the general population, something that can contribute to those chronic conditions.

Mendoza said the thought behind using technology solutions was because of the survivors’ age: the study participants were between 14 and 18 years old.

“We’re trying to meet the teens where they’re at already,” Mendoza said. “They’re a very wired generation, and it’s very common for them to be on their smartphones multiple times during the day and have high interest in apps, wearables, and of course Facebook and other social networks.”

Each participant used a Fitbit to track their physical activity over ten weeks, trying to reach goals like increasing their number of steps per day and decreasing their sedentary time. Facebook came into play as the host for a private virtual support group for the teens.

“Previous research showed that teenage cancer survivors were interested in support groups, but they didn’t want to go to the traditional physical one. They thought an online or virtual one would be better,” Mendoza said.

The participants used the group to share tips on staying active, talk about their favorite sports and support each other through the process of trying to improve their health. And although Facebook and Fitbit were chosen for this particular study, the approach is relatively technology-agnostic, “as long as it’s able to capture relevant data like steps or other physical activity metrics,” Mendoza said. 

In fact, one piece of feedback the team got from participants was that they didn’t like that the support group was on Facebook. Instagram and Snapchat are much more popular among these Generation Z-ers.

Mendoza said the researchers are planning to carry out more and larger studies in the coming years and will incorporate the feedback they received from this first round of participants — including expanding to more social media platforms.

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