Header image by Pixabay.com (CC0)
The internet and social media offer an invaluable trove of information and discovery for anyone interested in health and wellness, which is almost everyone. From finding the right kind of health professional to suit your needs, to investigating medical research, the internet provides a wealth of data, connections and avenues to satisfy your curiosity. And use of social media by both patients and health professionals is growing (Syed-Abdul et al. 2016, p. 1)
Social media plays a big role in how we perceive and manage our health. Online communities reflect offline communities in many ways, and this can mean those who are ill can seek and receive support, advice and recommendations, not only from family and friends, but also those who share their conditions and concerns. Networks and online communities of people affected by common ailments can be a great source of comfort and solidarity. There are even opportunities for health services to operate more like a social media platform and offer more personalised and cost-saving service via digital channels, via chat, message and blogs (Hawn 2009, p. 361). And social media provide governments, health agencies and organisations with a fast, inexpensive and extensive outreach and education opportunities (Strekalova 2016) to promote priority messages about health and medical issues in a way that medical experts and journals can’t often achieve.
Similarly, the prevalence and profile of health issues on social media and online news can result in changes in how people search for information about various medical issues. A research analysis of Google trends and health search terms found spikes in searches when various health conditions were in the news, and especially when celebrities were affected (Ellery et al. 2008). This presents an opportunity for digitally-savvy health promotion campaigns to take advantage of the zeitgeist to deliver some genuinely beneficial health education information to the public when opportunities are presented.
But of course, our curiosity about our health online is not without its risks.
An investigation by Buzzfeed news into the sharing of stories about autism found an alarmingly high proportion of highly-shared articles on Facebook promoted unevidenced or disproven treatments or causes (Chivvers 2017). While it’s hard to separate the impact of individual users’ actions in sharing these stories and Facebook’s algorithms in surfacing them, it’s clear that there is a high risk that vulnerable parents seeking information could be served stories with serious consequences for the health of their families. Another study found that users of a search engine could have their opinions about vaccinations positively and negatively affected by how the search engine algorithm served up results. Subjects of this study were not only influenced in their opinion about the pros and cons of vaccinations based on the types of sites the search engine was biased to deliver, but they were also unaware that they were influenced.
As with almost all aspects of our lives that are lived online now, there are tremendous opportunities and challenges, and health is no different. For patients, health consumers, and the community, online health information promises cheap, widely accessible and diverse sources of news, advice and referrals. For many, particularly those struggling with misunderstood or stigmatised conditions, like mental health or STIs, the private and confidential nature of online channels presents a reassuring avenue to getting information that can help. And for health agencies, organisations and governments, social media offers a powerful channel for communicating with wide sections of the community with education, outreach and information, as well as providing a rich source of data for analysis.
But our health and wellbeing is a complex area, and information has to be blended with the insights and experience that health professionals offer. A healthy community online will be one which is connected, informed, and well-serviced by a strong, old-fashioned health sector.
Allam, A, Schulz, P J & Nakamoto, K 2014, ‘The Impact of Search Engine Selection and Sorting Criteria on Vaccination Beliefs and Attitudes: Two Experiments Manipulating Google Output’, Journal of Medical Internet Research, April 2014, doi: 10.2196/jmir.2642.
Chivers, T 2017, ‘How Online Filter Bubbles Are Making Parents Of Autistic Children Targets For Fake “Cures”’, Buzzfeed News, 28 August 2017, retrieved 30 August 2017, <https://www.buzzfeed.com/tomchivers/how-online-filter-bubbles-are-making-parents-of-autistic>.
Ellery, P, Vaughn, W, Ellery, J, Bott, J, Ritchey, K & Byers, L 2008, ‘Understanding internet health search patterns: An early exploration into the usefulness of Google Trends’, Journal of Communications in Healthcare, vol. 1, no. 4, pp. 441-456, retrieved 27 September 2017, <http://eds.b.ebscohost.com/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?vid=6&sid=b868fb99-b287-4ef4-9ccb-d0bb50d49ee5%40sessionmgr120>.
Hawn, C 2009, ‘Take Two Aspirin And Tweet Me In The Morning: How Twitter, Facebook, And Other Social Media Are Reshaping Health Care’, Health Affairs, vol. 28, no. 2, pp. 361-368.
Strekalova, Y 2016, ‘Health Risk Information, Engagement and Amplification on Social Media’, Health Education & Behaviour, vol. 44, issue 2, pp. 332-339.
Syed-Abdul, S, Gabarron, E, Lau, A Y S & Househ, M 2016, ‘An Introduction to Participatory Health Through Social Media’, in S Syed-Abdul, E Gabbaron & A Y S Lau (eds), Participatory Health Through Social Media, Elsevier Science, UK, pp. 1-9.