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UV photos of sun damage promote protection through fear

Photo provided by: BYU News

Ultraviolet (UV) photographs appear to encourage sun-safe behaviour through eliciting a fear response, researchers report in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine (June 2019; 42(3):401–422).

The study was conducted by investigators from Brigham Young University (BYU) in Provo, Utah, and the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Their aim was to see which visuals images were more effective at influencing people to screen themselves for cancer.

In the sample of more than 2,200 adults, aged 18 to 89 years from across the U.S., the research team found that visual stimulation had a significant impact. Specifically, they found that images of skin damage revealed by UV photography can cause viewers to feel fear, which then made these individuals more likely to participate in positive sun-safe behaviours such as wearing sunscreen or protective clothing.

“Just talking about skin cancer, being inundated with facts and mortality rates, all of that is fear-inspiring language, but the images were so powerful that they moved people to intend to take action,” said Kevin John, an assistant professor in BYU’s School of Communications and study co-author, in a press release.

Some 60 different variations of an educational approach were compared, including providing written factual information, presenting stock photos of individuals in the sun, photographs of skin sites where moles had been removed, and the UV photos. The UV photographs were taken of members of the research team using a VISIA UV complexion analysis system.

All comparison group visuals were collected from the educational materials, websites, blogs and social media pages of organizations such as the Skin Cancer Foundation, the American Academy of Dermatology, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the American Cancer Society.

After reviewing the materials, the researchers asked each person how likely they were to use various sun safety behaviours in the future, such as sunscreen, wearing protective clothing, staying in the shade and wearing sunglasses.

“The UV photos, and one particular image of a mole being removed, were the most effective in terms of influencing someone to change their behaviour. This tells us these are the types of images we need to use to convince people to screen themselves for cancer. Over time, we hope this will cause mortality rates to drop,” John said.

The study was funded by a $2.5 million grant from the U.S. National Institutes of Health.

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