Research & Insights

Study Shows That Facebook Users Have a Lot of Heart

By Erin Meisenzahl-Peace

Andrew Cameron, Allan Massie, Robert Montgomery, Dorry Segev, The John Hopkins University
Charles Alexander, Living Legacy Foundation
Bryan Stewart, One Legacy
Natalie Benavides, Donate Life Maryland
G. David Fleming, Donate Life America

We use Facebook to share nearly every milestone of our lives — from getting a dog to having a baby to marrying the love of our lives. These updates often inspire our friends to do the same. But what about things that have greater social significance, such as encouraging people to donate their organs?

A study conducted by researchers from The Johns Hopkins University and various organ donation organizations found that people who post their intentions on Facebook to become organ donors can motivate others to do the same.

Over 28 days, researchers Andrew Cameron, Robert Montgomery, Dorry Segev, and Allen Massie, partnered with the Living Legacy Foundation, One Legacy, Donate Life Maryland and Donate Life America, to track the number of newly registered organ donors after the launch of an experimental Facebook-organ registry collaboration. When updating their profiles, users were able to select “Registered as an Organ Donor” as a life event, just like they would update to “Had a Baby” or “Got Engaged.” Any user was allowed to do this, regardless of previous registration status.

Once posted on Facebook, that “life event” could actually serve as registration in places where no formal organ donation registry was available. “Its use may represent the only documented source of an individual’s wishes in an area of the world which is still without a registry,” the researchers write.

In their study, published in the August 2013 American Journal of Transplantation, the researchers write, “If a new registrant at the [Department of Motor Vehicles] is then also encouraged to announce that decision on Facebook, the power of the single registration may be multiplied manyfold by the influence of the message as it spreads in the social network.”

The results were impressive. “On the first day of the Facebook organ donor initiative, there were 13,054 new online registrations,” according to the researchers. Although the “Facebook effect” steadily declined as time passed, the initial upswing in donor registrations gave hope to organ donation foundations that a collaboration like this could be effective at increasing enrollment. Gallup’s 2005 National Survey of Organ and Tissue Donation Attitudes and Behaviors found that more than 95 percent of people would like to be organ donors, but only 30 to 50 percent have actually registered (as of 2013). The Facebook effect increased registrations by more than 33,000, suggesting that social media can have a small but significant effect on organ donor registration.

Although the experiment only lasted 28 days, the results suggest that this program could be a way to increase organ donations. Percentage-wise, new registrations by only 0.1 percent of Facebook users may sound minimal. But 33,000 registrations is 33,000 newly available organs, explain the researchers. “Expecting more dramatic initial results may be unrealistic, but multiplying a small impact by a large network may be enough to eventually save lives.”

American Journal of Transplantation

Erin Meisenzahl-Peace is a writer and copy editor for frankology and a fourth-year journalism student in the Department of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida. Follow her on Twitter.


Posted: May 27, 2015
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