Three sites had advertisements for diabetes "cures," and two didn't clearly label these as advertisements.
Results of the study were published online recently in the Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association.
"It will be difficult for a consumer to judge a lot of these features," said senior author Dr. Kenneth Mandl, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and Children's Hospital Informatics Program. "Based on the amount of activity in these social network communities, this phenomenon is reaching a stage of maturity that will require more oversight and responsibility on the part of the social networking sites, and more education on the part of the consumers."
Other experts say the study brings important issues to light. "In a time when privacy matters on Facebook -- the biggest social network of all -- are so top of mind, this study is very timely and relevant," said Manny Hernandez, founder of TuDiabetes, a social networking site for people with diabetes, and an insulin-dependent diabetic himself.
"We need to make sure people with chronic conditions like diabetes feel comfortable connecting with others online to become more empowered and informed patients, who can also get the support that is so important with this type of disease," he explained.
Red Maxwell, a volunteer for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and founder of its Juvenation social network for people with type 1 diabetes, said online social networks are still in their infancy.
"There is an exchange of a lot of private health information," he said. "There's an implicit trust that the information won't be abused, but we understand there's a risk, and some of us are willing to do it" in order to help others, he added.
Dr. Sue Kirkman, senior vice president of medical affairs and community information for the American
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