Recently, a viral video spreading medical misinformation about how birth control causes infertility popped up in my TikTok feed. It only took a quick Google search to completely debunk: Though the advice came from a nurse practitioner — or so she claimed — article after article dispelled the myth she was so easily declaring as the truth. Finding credible information on the topic calmed my panic that my medication could be making me infertile, but there is no way of ensuring that others who viewed it spent time researching it to invalidate the video’s false claims. Whether it was just plain fear-mongering or a refusal to accept science, I was disturbed not only at how wrong the creator’s advice was, but how quick I was to believe her.
We are told to trust doctors, but there is no way to verify that these supposed medical professionals on social media have the credentials they claim to have. We should also be wary of medical professionals who are giving medical advice outside the scope of their specialty. Unless social media platforms can find a way to verify the credentials of practicing medical professionals, estheticians, registered dietitians, licensed personal trainers and other health specialists, we must beware of those on social media who self-identify as experts and offer medical advice.
With nearly 50% of U.S. TikTok users being under 30 years old, the application presents a prime opportunity to take advantage of a vulnerable population. For teens, whose brains aren’t fully developed until their mid-twenties, consuming content that is misleading can be detrimental. While adults process information with the rational part of their brain — the prefrontal cortex — teens process information with the emotional part of the brain, the amygdala. This has ramifications for how a large portion of TikTok users, and social media users in general, consume content. Because the front of the brain is the last place to fully develop, young peoples’ brains are slower to perform important functions, such as impulse control, which can result in more risk-taking behavior. It should be no surprise, then, how dangerous viral social media challenges, like the cinnamon challenge or Tide Pod challenge, become so popular. However, challenges aren’t the only things people should be wary of on social media.
The rise of misinformation pertaining to health and wellness has become so rampant that social media platforms have begun to censor and flag content that is intentionally or unintentionally misleading or misinforming viewers. The spread of medical misinformation became increasingly apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccine distribution. While some social media content creators have used scare tactics to stop people from partaking in certain actions, such as wearing a mask, getting vaccinated or taking birth control, other medical “specialists” have made money from promoting diets, medications and lifestyle choices that are either not beneficial or are actually harmful. SugarBearHair vitamins have been promoted on social media by many influencers, including Kim and Khloé Kardashian, Kylie Jenner and Vanessa Hudgens. However, the vitamins got push back from the medical community questioning their effectiveness. Celery juice, sunscreen contouring, appetite suppressant lollipops and IV vitamin hangover treatments are just a few health trends that have taken social media by storm. Nonetheless, many of the trends have little to no research supporting their health claims.
The worst part of these health trends is that too often they are started by people who have no medical training or education. I’m sure the Kardashians have no idea what the science behind the vitamins and treatments they are promoting truly is. Yet they faithfully market them to their hundreds of millions of followers, who are just as ignorant about how the products are made and the side effects they can cause. Even veganism has become a social media trend. While it might have more substantial evidence than other health regiments, there is still the problem that social media makes it too easy for people to spread misinformation about any health regime, medication or treatment. The TikTok algorithm and the algorithms of so many social media platforms have become nearly perfect at handpicking content for our insidiously curated feeds. It makes it all the more enticing to try out a health trend when it claims to magically solve the exact medical issues you’ve been trying to find solutions for. The people who spread medical misinformation are not the only problem, however. Platforms that don’t recognize the dangers of their algorithms and the misleading content on their sites are also to blame.
TikTok has made strides to slow down and eliminate content and to sanction content creators that promote misleading information. The app works with fact-checkers, including Politifact, SciVerify and Lead Stories, to remove videos that contain false information. TikTok also announced that it is integrating automated computer technology into the app that will work to support its safety policy for minors. This will include removing “adult nudity and sexual activities, violent and graphic content and illegal activities and regulated goods.” To specifically target health content that includes false information, the company introduced a warning on videos that have information that “cannot be conclusively validated” in February 2021. Videos that contain unverified content are now flagged with warning banners. While the banners can’t stop users from consuming misinformation, they can at least make people slow down and think about how they should react to a video that doesn’t have validated information. However, social media platforms should continue to create stricter guidelines about misinformation and enhance their compliance efforts to ensure the content published on them meets their guidelines.
Young people are not the only ones at risk of making poor medical decisions based on the social media content they consume. The demographics of social media users are varied, with some apps attracting larger proportions of elderly users, who are vulnerable to consuming and spreading misinformation. The accessibility of these apps gives people who wouldn’t otherwise have access to medical advice the opportunity to connect with people they believe to be professionals. A rise in health care costs has forced millions of Americans away from seeking medical treatment. A 2019 Gallup poll found that 33% of respondents said they had delayed medical treatment for a condition because they couldn’t afford it. There are certainly positives to the dissemination of vital medical information on social media platforms, like how to self-check for breast, testicular or skin cancer, the basics of CPR or when to seek medical help. However, there are still many content creators out there spreading misinformation that can potentially be dangerous.
We should even be cautious about taking medical advice from licensed medical professionals. Not all medical providers are created equal, so even if they do have sufficient medical credentials, social media platforms don’t provide any way to measure their credibility. While sites like Yelp can provide reviews for doctors or nurse practitioners, there is no direct pipeline of those resources to the social accounts of medical professionals. At the least, there should be a push for social media sites to verify the accounts and content of actual medical professionals. This won’t guarantee that they won’t spread misinformation, but it can hopefully allow users to make more informed decisions after watching content on health and wellness. Users can also do their part to combat the spread of misinformation and unsubstantiated claims by thinking critically when consuming online content, speaking with their medical providers before acting on social media health trends and reporting content that is false or misleading.
Theodora Vorias is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.