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How social media can promote teenage health

How social media can promote teenage health  - YINI

Here at YINI our mission is to promote and advance scientific knowledge on sustainable and balanced diets, and we’re always on the lookout for great ways to share these messages that best suit specific audiences. For teenagers, an obvious route is through social media as they’re never far away from their devices. But there is a challenge. All the information on this site is scientifically validated, but how can the reliability of messages shared through social media be ensured? That’s why this recently published article caught our eye.


Social media-savvy teenagers are smart thinkers when it comes to trusting health information online and many are wary of fake news that may be posted by unreliable people, research shows (1). But teenagers admit they can sometimes have a tough time telling the difference between truth and lies.

Now scientists are calling for doctors and other health professionals to wise up to the ways of the social network and even become ‘influencers’ themselves. In this way they can unleash the power of social media to promote health among millions of young people.

And it goes without saying that health promotion should include information about healthy and sustainable eating.

It’s second nature for teenagers to use social media

A 2018 survey in the USA found that 97% of kids aged 13-17 years were using social media such as Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat (2).

Indeed, social media has become so much a part of teenage life that most young people feel more at home finding out about health through their favourite social media platforms than talking to people face-to-face.

But the flip side is there’s plenty of scope for poor quality or even harmful health information to be shared on social media. During the COVID-19 pandemic especially, the power of social media has stood out for widely and rapidly spreading both information and mis-information (3).

Many teenagers don’t trust social media but use it anyway

A review of studies has looked at what teenagers take into account when deciding whether to trust health information they find on social media. The studies were carried out, mainly through schools, in several countries, including the USA, Canada, the UK and other European countries, Australia, and Kenya. They used questionnaires, focus groups or interviews to ask about health topics such as sexual health, nutrition, physical activity, and weight.

The review found a general mistrust among teenagers of social media for health information, with websites being trusted over social media (4).

However, many young folk do turn to social media for health information because it’s familiar, easily accessible, and handy given that they’re already using it to chat with friends or follow interests.

Teenagers know they have to be wary of other users and recognise that in social media people can make up anything they like – including health information, the review showed.

They’re more likely to trust information from sources they already trust, such as friends or family. But they’re also influenced by the number of ‘likes’ a social media post gets, so false information can spread quickly and be taken as fact. Information that’s ‘trending’ or that appears recurrently also tends to be viewed as trustworthy.

Safety online and fear of bullying are big worries for young people

For some teenagers, anonymity and privacy controls on social media platforms mean they can be more open about their health concerns without fear of other people seeing their personal information (5,6). They can ask questions that they feel uncomfortable asking in other settings.

But the downside of users being anonymous on social media is that young folk can be exposed to bullying online. Cyber-bullies can use the anonymity to send abusive or hurtful responses to health information shared – a problem particularly for mental or sexual health concerns, the review found.

Celebrities and influencers can be a force for good – and bad

Some teenagers are happy to trust celebrities and other influencers on health topics, suggesting such influencers could be a force for good, raising awareness of health issues and helping to overcome stigma of certain health problems.

On the other hand, some celebrities seem too good to be true, with fitness levels that most teenagers couldn’t hope to achieve. Teenagers are more comfortable with influencers who come across as sincere and open about their experiences.

Similar experiences shared through social media show young people they’re not alone in their health problem, while they are more likely to follow health advice from people the same age and gender as them.

Presentation also matters: Teenagers like visual content but poor quality, blurred pictures are seen as untrustworthy. They prefer videos more than photographs which are too easy to tamper with.

Social media can be used to build relationships with your doctor

Teenagers trust information from health professionals and respected health organisations more than other sources.

But adolescents don’t like to be lectured and they’re put off by health information that seems to be targeting adults, or is too heavy or educational.

Some teenagers taking part in the research suggested social media sites could be a way to build trusting relationships with health professionals outside of the clinic. It would help them get to know their doctors and would give health professionals a clearer understanding of their patients’ particular needs: As one teenager put it, “… you would get a more personal relationship with your doctor [through social media] without it being creepy”, the review reported.

If you can’t beat it, join it

The researchers suggest that social media holds great promise as a vehicle for health promotion to teenagers, and suggest that health professionals and health organisations should be more active in providing accurate health information in an engaging way on social media platforms to counter the spread of false information.

Currently, evidence-based health information tends to be published in a way that doesn’t reach teenagers, so it’s important to explore options to engage teenagers via social media, say the researchers.

Future research should further explore social media trust among teenagers in differenct countries, and of different cultures, the authors suggest.

‘Healthcare organizations might consider the strategic use of experts or influencers on social media, combined with high-quality video content and a simple, clear message as a trusted health resource for adolescents.’ – Freeman JL, et al. 2022

Find out more: read the original article

Source: (1) Freeman JL, Caldwell PHY, Scott KM. How do adolescents trust health information on social media: a systematic review.  Acad Pediatr. 2022 PMID 36581098 Review.
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