Do you get health advice from social media? Here's why you should be careful what you read
In the office of a private gynaecologist in central London, I nervously waited for my appointment, wondering what had brought me to this point. Even though I was a healthy 27-year-old woman with no family history of fertility concerns, I was terrified about my ability to have a child. I'd forked out for private scans, which thankfully came back clear. But part of me was baffled: something had to be wrong. After all, according to multiple Instagram Reels, I have many symptoms of PCOS, which can lead to infertility.
When Covid-19 hit our social-media feeds, we were all encouraged not to take scaremongering Facebook posts from our aunt's friend's sister at face value, and instead consult the World Health Organisation (WHO) for reliable health information. We were warned to question what we read online and to fact-check articles before sharing clickbait headlines, but social media nonetheless exploded with more health content than ever before. These days, health advice is a commonplace part of the social media experience.
Stories of others' misfortune are constantly available to us, from sepsis as a result of a common UTI, to horrific allergic reactions to gel manicures. A readily available source that can help us to identify troubling symptoms does have its benefits, but how much is the information we find on social media a hindrance, as well as a help?
It depends where it comes from, according to Jordan Vyas-Lee, psychotherapist and co-founder of mental-health care clinic, Kove. "Social media is not a good source of medical information," he explains. "What we read on social media comes with no guarantee of validity, since information can be shared by non-experts, which is not then moderated. The issue with health videos on social media is that you often don’t know who is presenting the material – often a lay person is speaking on health issues, rather than a qualified health professional."
Psychoanalytic psychotherapist Anna Sergent agrees, adding that health information on social media can be a real force for good, as long as it's accurately represented. "Information is power when it comes to health but it does depend on what we do with it and if it is evidence-based," she says. "From my perspective, it is positive that health professionals are being active on social as long as they are qualified and experienced medical professionals who present the information in a measured and factual way."
There is, however, another danger in seeking out health content on your apps: constant symptom-checking and mis-diagnosing yourself can be a huge, escalating source of anxiety, as well as lead to a delay in seeking proper medical help.
"Symptom-spotting may change into an obsession or a compulsion where the person will obsessively think about their possible symptoms or compulsively check for them," says Sergent. "Often, even if we are seeking medical help, the waiting list may be long and this may discourage people from waiting. Instead, people seek treatment or buy medication online."
Over-analysis (of the kind that lead me to the gynaecologist's office that day) can lead us to catastrophising, says Vyas-Lee – so it's not altogether surprising that I was in a panic. "Ultimately, health information is highly charged material because it’s threatening to us," he explains. "Health problems represent mortal danger to our nervous systems, so we find this type of information very hard to interpret objectively, unless we’re reading with a critical eye."
There are some situations in which social media can be a useful source when it comes to health concerns – for example, it can help us identify conditions or concerns we might otherwise have missed. Treatment for women's health issues in particular is woefully underserved; many women feel they haven't been taken seriously in the doctor's office and medical students only officially began training in women's health issues in 2022.
"It's important that more women share their specific health issues on social media," says Sergent. "Nowadays, topics around female health are less of a taboo and women seem more comfortable speaking openly about their struggles with infertility, pregnancy, miscarriage, or menopause."
Normalising otherwise hidden experiences is a clear positive of social media use, and Vyas-Lee agrees that this can be useful. "Social media provides a good outlet for people to express things, and allows for dissemination of information to the masses. Celebrities putting out information around how they feel normalises otherwise hidden issues."
There's no doubt that the shattering of taboo health topics is a great thing, but monitor your activity and be aware of checking your symptoms too obsessively. Always research whether sources are reliable; Vyas-Lee's advice is to stick to those that draw from research and evidence. "Big reputable organisations and charities tend to disseminate the best guidance," he says. And when in doubt, seek real, concrete medical advice – an actual doctor is no match for a TikTok user espousing tips from their bedroom.
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