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Scrolling through a social media feed, you might expect to see photos of friends’ travels, political opinions, and images of the latest fashions. You’ll also find a tremendous 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 outlets have played an even larger role in spreading both information and disinformation. As a result, a new body of research is exploring the impact of social media on public health and how we can best use online tools to improve our well-being.
So, do social media platforms offer health advice that you should follow?
According to the data, that depends. Looking at all of the evidence demonstrates that health information shared on social media channels is a mixed bag.
There are plenty of data demonstrating that social media can play an important role in disseminating important medical information, providing emotional support for those with health conditions, increasing 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 link 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, there is evidence that social media detracts from public health by spreading misinformation. A systematic review published last year in the Journal of Medical Internet 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 evaluate 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 consumption and abuse of dangerous substances, in many cases providing what appears to be scientific data.
Misinformation was also prevalent about vaccines, especially the vaccine for the human papillomavirus (HPV), with false statements also commonly framed as scientific evidence.
Researchers found a moderate amount of misinformation on the topics of diets and eating disorders, such as promoting diets without a scientific basis and facilitating pro-eating disorder online communities.
And they found a moderate amount of misinformation about communicable diseases, including the COVID-19 pandemic. More often than not, researchers found this misinformation was not purposefully malicious but instead promoted rumors, misunderstandings, and doubts about the available data.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began more than two years ago, health researchers have focused more specifically on the interplay between the pandemic and social media. A systematic review published last month combined 155 studies to look at how social media use affected people’s attitudes toward the COVID-19 vaccine. The evidence paints a complicated picture of how social media use affected COVID-19 vaccination rates.
On the whole, more studies found negative relationships between social media use and a person’s intention to become 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. What it comes down to, the authors found, is exactly how people interact on social media and with whom they interact.
The authors found that groups focused on arguing against vaccination were better positioned to spread misinformation on social media platforms compared with groups promoting vaccination. These anti-vaccination promoters were not only better connected to their own communities but more likely to influence people who were undecided about vaccinations.
For people with specific chronic health conditions—such as AIDS or neurological disorders—using social media tended to encourage positive attitudes towards vaccination. And when people read social media posts by doctors or health professionals, they were also more likely to get vaccinated.
What’s the take-home message?
Health information on social media is a mixed bag, but there are some steps you can take to determine if what you’re seeing is accurate. Most importantly, consider the source. Posts that come from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health, and accredited hospitals, health centers, and universities are most likely to be reliable. Remember that social media algorithms are designed to show you what you already believe or want to see. And that people are more likely to share something surprising or new, even if those findings are misleading or wrong.