Should you get your health information from social media?
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Scrolling through a social media feed, you can expect to see photos from friends’ trips, political opinions, and images of the latest fashions. You will also find a wide variety of health information.
With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the need for reliable health information is central to our lives; social media has played an even bigger role in spreading news and misinformation. As a result, a new body of research is exploring the impact of social media on public health and how best to use online tools to improve our well-being.
So, do social media platforms offer any health advice you should follow?
According to the data, it depends. Examination of all the evidence shows that the health information shared on social media is mixed.
There is ample evidence that social media can play an important role in spreading important medical information, providing emotional support to people with health conditions, raising awareness of public health issues, and more. As social media platforms expand their functionality, such as facilitating event registration, sending reminders and accepting payments, these platforms are also able to connect users to health-related services and events (think vaccination clinics and public health screenings), which could be an important strategy to improve public health.
At the same time, social media is proven to harm public health by spreading misinformation. A systematic review published last year in the Journal of Internet Medical Research finds that social media feeds are full of inaccurate health information that can lead the public to make poor health decisions. The review combines data from 69 studies to assess the health topics with the most misinformation.
Researchers found that misinformation was most prevalent on the topics of smoking, vaping and illegal drugs, where posts often promote the use and abuse of dangerous substances, in many cases providing what appears to be scientific data. .
Misinformation was also widespread about vaccines, particularly the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, with false claims also often presented as scientific evidence.
The researchers found a moderate amount of misinformation about diets and eating disorders, such as promoting unscientific diets and facilitating online communities that support eating disorders.
And they found a moderate amount of misinformation about communicable diseases, including the COVID-19 pandemic. More often than not, the researchers found that this misinformation was not intentionally malicious, but rather fostered rumors, misunderstandings, and doubts about the available data.
Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic more than two years ago, health researchers have focused more specifically on the interaction between the pandemic and social media. A systematic review published last month combined 155 studies to examine how social media use affected people’s attitudes toward the COVID-19 vaccine. The evidence paints a complicated picture of how social media use has affected COVID-19 vaccination rates.
Overall, more studies have found negative relationships between social media use and a person’s intention to get vaccinated; that is, people who used social media were more hesitant about vaccines. But there were also individual studies that found social media users were more likely to get vaccinated. According to the authors, it comes down to how people interact on social media and who they interact with.
The authors found that groups focused on arguments against vaccination were in a better position to spread misinformation on social media platforms than groups promoting vaccination. These anti-vaccination promoters were not only better connected to their own communities, but more likely to influence those undecided about vaccinations.
For people with specific chronic conditions, such as AIDS or neurological disorders, the use of social media tends to encourage positive attitudes towards vaccination. And when people read social media posts from doctors or medical professionals, they are also more likely to get vaccinated.
What is the take home message?
Health information on social media is a mixed bag, but there are steps you can take to determine if what you’re seeing is accurate. More importantly, consider the source. Messages from the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institutes of Health, and accredited hospitals, health centers, and universities are most likely to be trusted. Remember that social media algorithms are designed to show you what you already believe or what you want to see. And that people are more likely to share something surprising or new, even if those results are misleading or wrong.