Finding Reliable Health Information Online

Social Media and Health Information

From the latest celebrity-endorsed juice trending on Instagram to a YouTube star’s dietary supplement recommendation, there is a lot of health information available on social media.  Every day, we are bombarded with messages about health.  Sometimes it can be hard to figure out what information is trustworthy and based on facts and what information is based on opinion.  As parents and caregivers, we can help our teens understand the health messages they come across to guide them to make good decisions regarding their health.  In other words, we can help teens develop “health literacy.”  Health literacy is a skill set that helps us read and understand information about health and well-being. Having good health literacy helps us find credible information about health and fitness to make informed decisions about what is best for our well-being.  

Social Media Influencers and Teen Decisions

Social media influencers have a lot of sway over teens’ purchasing behavior, even more so than celebrities and sports stars! About one-quarter of teens say that social media influencers are the most influential people in their decisions to purchase something. In fact, 44% of Gen-Z have purchased something that an influencer recommended. Influencers are not just limited to fashion and makeup tutorials and recommendations. A recent study found that 52% of Gen Z turns to social media influencers for health and medical information.

Just like fashion influencers, some health influencers may also give advice or endorse products. For example, some influencers may blog or vlog about their workout routines. Others  may encourage their followers to purchase products like “detox” teas. They may also encourage their followers to share their posts. However, not all medical and health information coming from influencers is fact-checked. One study found that more than 20% of workout videos on TikTok contained incorrect information that could be harmful or lead to injury.

A recent study found that 52% of Gen Z turns to social media influencers for health and medical information.

While some social media platforms do have fact-checkers that work to remove misinformation, this does not guarantee that posts will be taken down. Even after fact-checking, almost 60% of posts containing misinformation about Covid-19 remained on Twitter. Over 25% of similar posts remained on both Facebook and YouTube. Influencers and celebrities “were responsible for producing or spreading 20% of the false claims about coronavirus.”  Because of the amount of  misinformation available, it is crucial  to develop skills to figure out what information is true and what is not.

This is not to say that all information from influencers is bad. Some influencers promote credible products or give out scientifically backed information. Influencers who are experts in the health sphere (e.g., nutrition, exercise, and medicine) are known as Health Mavens. Health mavens will often have degrees or certifications listed on their profiles to show their expertise.  One way to start verifying whether someone is a credible influencer is to Google that person. Does that person’s social media profile match who they say they are?  It is still a good idea to check other legitimate sources to ensure the Influencer is giving sound advice. Read on to find out how you can help your teen find out if the information is credible. 

Discussing Health Information on Social Media

There are several ways you can guide your teen in thinking critically about the information they’re confronted with every day. Here are some points and questions you and your teen can discuss and ask to help strengthen your teen’s social media-related health literacy skills.

  1. What is the person’s motivation for sharing this information? Why is this information being shared? Influencers may be paid thousands of dollars for each sponsored post. There have even been instances of Influencers being paid to spread political messages.  
  2. What qualifications (e.g., degree or certification) does the person have? Are their qualifications matched with the advice that they are giving? Keep in mind that even though an Influencer may have many followers, that does not mean that they are an expert.   
  3. Does the person provide additional information about what they are saying? Suppose they do not provide evidence or more information about their claims. In that case it is a good idea to look up information on your own (see below for some trusted resources) or ask a professional (like your doctor!) about it. Click here for more ways to find trusted information around the Internet. 
  4. Take this as an opportunity to engage with your teen about the product or advice given. What do they like about the product? What do they like about the influencer? Ask your teen questions to understand their perspective. Remember that your opinion matters a lot to your teen! Your input could help your teen make good decisions about their health or purchases that could affect their well-being. 

Find Good Health Information

Even after we understand the motives behind an advertisement, we might still have questions about a product or health information. If you, or your teen are unsure about whether a product or information is based in science, it is a good idea to check with other resources. There are trusted websites that give credible health information. For example, you can look up information about various topics on HealthyChildren.org, a website run by the American Academy of Pediatrics, created for parents and caregivers. (HealthyChildren.org is also available in Spanish.) Another option is KidsHealth.org, run by Nemours, a nonprofit organization dedicated to children’s health. Check out this site for more links to resources that may help with fact-checking health information. A lot of organizations also run social media pages! For example, the American Academy of Pediatrics has an Instagram and a Twitter account.

Another way to figure out whether a product or information is credible is to ask a healthcare provider.  For example, you can call your pediatrician’s office or ask a healthcare worker during your next visit.  Pharmacists are another great resource. You don’t have to be picking up a prescription to talk to your pharmacist. You can always stop by on your next visit to the drugstore.      

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About Ettya Fremont

Ettya Fremont, PhD, MPP, is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Division of Adolescent Medicine at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. She is interested in positive youth development, specifically for youth with special health care needs, and adolescent moral development.

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