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Expert commentary: Finding truth in social media

Dr Jessica Stokes-Parish is an Assistant Professor of Medicine and Clinical Practice at Bond University. 

We know that teens are using social and digital media for, well, just about everything. As a millennial, it’s difficult to get my head around having social and digital media permeate every part of teenage years – the magazines and peer pressure was already enough!

According to the 2020 eSafety survey, 95 percent of teens use digital media, with YouTube, Instagram, Facebook and SnapChat their top four platforms of choice. Teens cite a variety of reasons for using social media – staying connected, entertainment and researching information.  When it comes to researching information, the majority of teens seek information on health.

Social media is an enticing place to seek health information – it’s visually appealing and highly influential. In research from the US, teens were found to frequently access health related information on fitness, sexual health and nutrition.

Picture it in your mind - a fit athlete sharing tips on bulking up while in sponsored kit, or the local Gold Coast influencer sharing their favourite healthy smoothie recipe. Innocent on the outside, social media is a breeding ground for misinformation, bullying and eating disorders.

The effects of cyberbullying are well-documented. The links between social media and eating disorders are well established, with filters and media internalisation (“maladaptive” usage of social media) known to be associated with increased risk of eating disorders. As are the links between other types of eating disorders that contribute to body dysmorphia in teens – like orthorexia, the obsession with eating healthy food.

But it’s not all bad news, there are positives to social media, too. The ability to communicate in creative ways to large numbers and strategically promote awareness of health is a huge opportunity. The challenge is to help balance those risks with its potential benefits.

There are plenty of examples of inaccurate information online. For example, in a study on influencers and nutrition information, 90 percent of the influencers included in the study did not provide evidence-based information in their posts about food. Throughout the pandemic we have also seen a proliferation of inaccurate health information online in regard to immune boosting and nutrition.

So how do teens fare when assessing accuracy of information?  A recent study found that more than 80% of adolescents were unable to identify two reliable sources of health information when presented with reliable sources and unreliable sources (e.g. the World Health Organisation vs unidentified blogs).

One way parents and educators can help them decipher reliable advice from misinformation is to provide them with accessible critical appraisal tools for assessing the quality of health information online.

When assessing the accuracy and credibility of content online, it’s helpful to systematically consider the information at hand. The essence of critical appraise of health information is 'think fast, share slow' in an effort to help teens and others consider the credibility of information at hand.

Here’s one handy framework that you might like to use – CRABS.

C - Conflict of Interest

Conflicts of interest occur when an individual stands to benefit from a certain message or decision, making the information less reliable, e.g. telling you a problem and delivering a solution (that benefits them). Conflicts include financial benefits or even political ones.

R - References

References are important as they indicate two things: one, whether there is evidence to back a claim; and two, whether the author is across the body of evidence and key work. In addition, they should be recent (science changes fast) and from reputable scientific sources.

A - Author

Anyone can write on anything. The internet provides more opportunities for everyone to have a voice. Their expertise/qualifications (or lack of) relative to the topic is important when determining how much weight to give the content.

B - Buzz words

Designed to draw you in with marketing speak, buzz words are great for science washing and misleading you with jazzy claims.

S - Scope of practice

Scope of practice is a complex combination of an individual’s qualifications and expertise, the setting of practice and the needs of the client. Most people don’t ever set out to overreach their scope of practice; it’s a slippery slope of rule bending. A nurse providing specific nutrition advice or an engineer talking about infection control is likely overreaching scope of practice.

Helping teens spot discredited or misleading information doesn’t have to be hard. A memorable strategy, such as a mnemonic or slogan, can be useful to guide teens through systematic appraisal. Being aware of the challenges our teens face is crucial to helping them tackle social media with confidence.

You can read Dr Stokes-Parish's latest research on CRABS here.

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