Malignant melanoma rates are on the rise in the UK and young women are the most vulnerable. To combat this, a study has tested a novel approach for getting people to use more sun-safe behaviour. A group of researchers recently released findings showing that using face-changing technology to show off the effects of premature aging from sun damage may be a more effective avenue than simple text messages.
The researchers, citing past studies, were operating under a few assumptions when they designed their experiment. Past research has suggested that a desire for a better physical appearance was encouraging tanning, which in turn was leading to heightened UV exposure, which may be tied to the increase in malignant melanoma cases. The researchers, under the framework that physical appearance was a motive for UV exposure, decided to try highlighting the physical effects sunlight can cause. Since most sun-safe messages were impersonal and directed at a large population, they also attempted a personalized approach.
The study itself consisted of 65 young women who were divided into one of four groups: text short-term, text long-term, visual short-term and visual long-term. The text group was given an information sheet describing how excess sun exposure would physically age their skin by age 30 (for the short-term group) or by age 60 (for the long-term group).
The visual communication was done by using face-changing technology to take a picture of the participant and offer a compare-and-contrast look at how their appearance would change from sun damage. After this was undertaken, the participants were asked about whether the messages impacted their beliefs regarding sun exposure and its effects on their appearance. As the participants were leaving, they were told they could take as many sunscreen samples or leaflets as they wanted from a bowl by the exit.
The results were, in a sense, not that surprising. The researchers found that those who were in the visual groups reported a larger impact on their beliefs about the skin’s ability to heal itself. The visual group also took more leaflets and more sunscreen samples. From this, it was concluded that a personalized, visual communication about the effects of premature aging would have more of an impact than a text-based one when it comes to influencing beliefs about skin recovery.
Issues with the Study
Unfortunately, this study has a few glaring flaws that make it hard to determine how applicable or valid its findings are—and this doesn’t even include the extremely small sample size. First, the participants were only asked about the impact of the message on their beliefs. This is a bit of an unusual approach since it didn’t try and find out what the participants’ beliefs were beforehand, so there is no baseline for comparison. Also important is that the participants weren’t asked about tanning habits or other forms of sun exposure or sun protection use, which would influence how receptive they would be to messages.
Another issue is that the study asked participants about how the messages changed their beliefs regarding the perceived rewards of tanning, the skin’s susceptibility to aging, and the skin’s ability to offer protection, and the results weren’t that different between the groups. This means that while the visual group was less confident in their skin’s ability to heal from sun damage, their views on tanning or vulnerability to the sun were not affected differently—which matters when the point of your study is to find ways to improve sun-safe messaging.
Lastly, the only behavioural indicator was how many samples and leaflets participants took with them when they departed. It should not need explaining why this is a very poor metric to use when trying to see if a message was able to change sun-protective behaviors. The study only had two people working on it, so it is understandable that their time and resources were limited, but this is still an unfortunate point that needs to be made.
What This Means
The idea that a visual communication about the effects of premature aging from sun damage had a stronger result than a text-based one is not surprising. The use of face-changing technology was a clever idea that definitely could have promise for encouraging sun-safe behaviour in people. Unfortunately, the study’s structure and design makes it hard to glean useful or valid insights on how the messages might influence beliefs and behaviors, so it can only be regarded as something that needs to be redone with more vigor and care.
Cheetham, I., et. al., “Enhancing sun safety in young women: The relative impact of format and temporal framing on beliefs and behaviour,” Cogent Psychology, 2016; https://doi.org/10.1080/23311908.2016.1210069