Mesfin A. Bekalu

Research Scientist

Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences

I am a research scientist in the Lee Kum Sheung Center for Health and Happiness, Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. I hold a PhD in Social Sciences from the University of Leuven in Belgium. Broadly, my research area is health communication. I am interested in investigating the intended and unintended effects of exposure to and use of media technologies and messages on health and well-being outcomes. This involves studying the effects of campaign materials designed and produced for strategic communication purposes and delivered through different media (print, broadcast and the Internet) as well as the unintended harmful and/or beneficial effects of media technologies on health and well-being outcomes in secular communication contexts. My studies draw on different communication and behavioral theories that advance our understanding of health behavior change processes.


My current research focuses on digital well-being in general and social media and well-being in particular, taking a two-pronged approach on the role of digital technologies in population health. The first approach focuses on the link between digital media (e.g., social media) use and well-being (physical, mental and social well-being), and the various individual, social and contextual factors that moderate and mediate the link. In this approach, I take a more holistic and innovative perspective to conceptualize, define and measure individuals’ digital media use experiences and concomitant health and well-being outcomes. The second approach investigates the use of digital technologies in general and social media in particular as a tool for health promotion and disease prevention interventions. In this effort, I try to employ concepts and strategies from other social science disciplines such as political science, marketing and behavioral economics to fully understand the potential and limits of using digital technologies for health interventions. Communication inequalities and the role of communication in abating and/or exacerbating health disparities are central in my research program on digital well-being. Methodologically, my research employs a mixed-method approach with a strong quantitative focus.


  • Postdoctoral Training, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, USA
  • PhD, University of Leuven (KU Leuven), Belgium
  • MPhil, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Norway
  • MA, Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia
  • B.Ed., Kotebe College of Teacher Education, Ethiopia

Selected Publications:

  • Bekalu, M.A. Dhawan, D., McCloud, R., Pinnamaneni, R., Viswanath, K. (2021). Adherence to COVID-19 mitigation measures among American adults: the need for consistent and unified messaging. Health Education Research. 36(2).  
  • Bekalu, M.A., McCloud, R.F., Minsky, S., Viswanath, K. (2020) Association of social participation, perception of neighborhood social cohesion, and social media use with happiness: Evidence of trade‐off. Journal of Community Psychology.
  • Bekalu, M.A., Gundersen, D.A., Viswanath, K. (2020) Beyond Educating the Masses: The Role of Public Health Communication in Addressing Socioeconomic- and Residence-based Disparities in Tobacco Risk Perception. Health Communication.
  • Lee, E.W.J., Bekalu, M.A., McCloud, R., Vallone, D., Arya M, Osgood, N., Li, X., Minsky, S., Viswanath, K. (2020). The Potential of Smartphone Apps in Informing Pro- and Anti-Tobacco Messaging Efforts Among Underserved Communities. Journal of Medical Internet Research. 21/03/2020:17451 (forthcoming/in press) DOI: 10.2196/17451 URL:
  • Bekalu, M.A., McCloud, R.F., Viswanath, K. (2019) Association of social media use with social wellbeing, positive mental health and self-rated health: disentangling routine use from emotional connection to use. Health Education & Behavior.
  • McCloud R.F., Bekalu M.A., Maddox N., Minsky S.J., Viswanath K. (2018) Leveraging Breadth and Depth: Strategies to Characterize Population Diversity to Address Cancer Disparities in the DF/HCC Catchment Area. Cancer Epidemiol Biomarkers Prev. 28(3):435-441. PMID: 30341096
  • Bekalu, M.A., Viswanath, K. (2018) Smoking portrayal in Ethiopian movies: a theory-based content analysis. Health Promotion International. PMID: 29912437
  • Bekalu, M.A., Ramanadhan, S., Nagler, R., Bigman, C., Viswanath, K. (2018) Graphic and arousing? Emotional and cognitive reactions to tobacco graphic health warnings and associated quit-related outcomes among low SEP populations. Health Communication. PMID: 29388802
  • Bekalu, M.A., Bigman, C., Lin, L., McCloud, R., Viswanath, K. (2017) The Relative Persuasiveness of Narrative versus Non-Narrative Health Messages in Public Health Emergency Communication: Evidence from a Field Experiment. Preventive Medicine. PMID: 29154794
  • Bekalu, M.A., Minsky, S., Viswanath, K. (2017) Beliefs about smoking-related lung cancer risk among low socioeconomic individuals: the role of smoking experience and interpersonal communication. Global Health Promotion. DOI:  PMID: 29110569
  • Bekalu, M.A.,Viswanath, K., Eggermont, S. (2016). HIV/AIDS communication inequalities and associated cognitive and affective outcomes: a call for a socioecological approach to AIDS communication in sub-Saharan Africa. Health Communication. PMID: 27367531
  • Beyens, I.,Vandenbosch, L., Bekalu, A., Eggermont, S. (2016). Adolescents’ conformity to the television viewing behavior of their classmates: A longitudinal study. Young: the Nordic Journal of Youth Research. 24(4), 290-308. DOI:
  • Bekalu, A., Eggermont S. (2015). Socioeconomic and socioecological determinants of AIDS stigma and the mediating role of AIDS knowledge and media use. Journal of Communication in Healthcare. 8(4), 316-324. DOI:
  • Bekalu, A., Eggermont S. (2014). Aligning HIV/AIDS communication with the oral tradition of Africans: A theory-based content analysis of songs’ potential in prevention efforts. Health Communication, PMID: 24945716
  • Bekalu, A., Eggermont S. (2014). The relative persuasiveness of gain- vs. loss-framed HIV testing message: Evidence from a field experiment in Northwest Ethiopia. Journal of Health Communication, 1-17. PMID: 2449885

Media Appearances/citations/interviews:


New England Psychologist

Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health – Featured News Stories


National Geographic


The Michigan Daily