Tackling Health Misinformation on Social Media
Millions of social media posts are uploaded every day across many different platforms. As a result, we have an almost endless amount of content available to us at a simple scroll of the screen - and that information can become overwhelming. Contradictory advice and even blatant mistruths are viewed all the time, and it’s up to us to decide what to believe, especially when that information is about our own health and wellbeing.
We looked into how people in the UK use social media to find information and advice about their general and sexual health. We wanted to see how trusting we are, how easy we fall into traps of misinformation, and how falling for incorrect information about our health can impact other areas of our lives. We also spoke to experts and doctors to share their experiences and insights on how to spot false snippets of information, and how to avoid making the mistake of believing them.
Does ‘HealthTok’ help or hinder our health?
One of the fastest growing social media platforms is TikTok, which has over 50 billion views on the #health hashtag and over 1.5 billion views on the topic of sexual health. Our survey of 2,000 social media users in the UK revealed that 42% believe that TikTok is the most accessible platform for health related content, and incredibly, 43% said they have learned more about sexual health from TikTok than they did at school, including 55% of 16-24-year-olds.
However, while a quarter of people say they have taken health advice from TikTok that has helped their life for the positive, the same number of people say they have taken advice from TikTok which has negatively impacted personal relationships or had a negative impact on their mental health. That may be because of the vast array of misinformed content lurking just a swipe away, with 59% saying they have seen untrue or misleading health information on TikTok, and 1 in 10 have actually taken action on advice that turned out to be inaccurate.
With TikTok skewing towards the younger audience, it is no surprise that the 16-24-year-old demographic are the most impacted by the content they see on the platform. TikTok is their most trusted social platform, with 39% saying they trust TikTok content the most. But while TikTok is the shiny new platform for the younger audience, the giants of the social media space are also having a wide-ranging impact on the older generations too, as our study shows.
Can social media advice be trusted?
Our research revealed how 80% view health and sexual health advice on social media, with 16% viewing it regularly. Latest reports say there are 53 million active social media users in the UK, and they spend an average of 110 minutes on social media every day. That means, if 80% of those users spend roughly 10 minutes a day viewing potentially incorrect health information on social media, there are a total of 424,000,000 minutes worth of health content every day being viewed that are misinformed or misleading.
Despite that, more people naturally believe the content they view is accurate (43%) versus those who think it is inaccurate (23%), and more than 50% of people have taken action for their health as a result of a social post they’ve seen. Of course, this could be a positive action, such as checking on your sexual health
or booking a doctor's appointment, but it could also encourage a misinformed self-diagnosis and anxiety as a result. We spoke to a young TikTok user from London, who feared the worst when she looked up her symptoms on TikTok:
“After noticing some irregularities in my vaginal health, I took to TikTok to see what these symptoms might mean and came away convinced that I had chlamydia. As I had not had unprotected sex in ages I assumed I had this STI for at least 6 months (a time period that can negatively impact women’s fertility) I was distraught, confused and scared. I was so convinced I went to a GP who informed me I simply had thrush – a really common yeast infection. If I had consulted my GP first instead of jumping on social media I could have saved myself a lot of sleepless nights.”
Indeed, people were found to be more likely to have viewed health advice on social media than they were to have booked a doctor's appointment in the past year. That could be because 18% say their first port of call for medical information is the internet/social media, and 1 in 5 would turn to the internet before looking at official NHS resources for information.
This data begs the question; are we putting too much trust into the platforms we use every day, and what will it cost us?
In terms of money, a conservative estimate is that in the past year, social media users have spent at least £345 million on health products they saw recommended solely on social media, with 12% saying they spent over £50 on products they’ve seen online. However, it’s not just the wallet that hits people who view health and sexual health information on social media.
The unspoken impact of health misinformation
Viewing incorrect or misleading content can lead people to self-diagnose inaccurately and cause needless anxiety due to the lack of professional insight, with viral videos being spread at such a fast and unstoppable pace. Indeed, our study shows that consuming such content can even have a negative impact on mental health (65%), general confidence (63%), personal relationships (53%), and social life (50%).
We spoke to psychologist, Smriti Joshi, to understand how to avoid the financial and mental damage of believing an incorrect piece of information about our health on social media and beyond, and they provided several top tips on how to spot a misleading post and ensure you fact check the content:
- Remember social media algorithms are created in a way to keep you hooked on. It will feed you more of what you are already engaging with, which can stop you finding other options or seeking credible sources of information.
- Have a critical eye and ear and ask if this is right for you, as an individual and for your lifestyle. Think about the information you receive in context – does it match up with other posts or news you’ve read? Don’t be afraid to go to your GP and ask for their advice.
- Always ensure to check the source of the information you are accessing. It should be from credible brands and credible sources like the NHS or a qualified, licensed healthcare professional. Going directly to these websites will help you avoid following misleading posts on social media.
- If a piece of information looks too amazing, magical, transformational or weird and makes you wonder, think and judge it as critically as you can. If it’s too good to be true, it probably is.
To demonstrate how misinformation about people’s health can impact their mental health, below is a regional breakdown showing where people are most negatively impacted, according to our research.
- Don’t engage with a piece of information suggesting you take a concoction of herbs or take up a certain challenge leading to a positive physical or mental health outcome just because someone on a social media platform did it. We all have unique bodies and unique needs and it's best that this advice comes to you from a credible source in an informed way.
You may be a Facebook fanatic, a TikTok lover, or an Instagram devotee, but whichever describes you best, it’s vital that the information you view is fact checked and you aren’t fooled by misinformed viral posts, especially when it comes to your health.
We can see the negative impact false information can have for your health, both mentally and physically, so it’s important that you get your information and advice from verified sources. Whether you think you have an STI or are worried about your sexual health, or even if you’ve got symptoms of a condition you’ve just discovered online, be sure to check in with an actual doctor, rather than tapping and scrolling your way to an anxiety-inducing self diagnosis.
If in doubt about your health, book in with your GP, or when it comes to your sexual health, you can simply order STI test kits at home. From chlamydia and gonorrhea tests
, to syphilis
, you can view our range of STI home test kits here
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