Social Media and Health: The Good, the Bad, and the Future
For many people, focusing on and filtering information can be a challenge. Gutenberg opened the information floodgates first with the invention of the printing press.1 Similarly, all the devices and channels now used to access that information, with social media playing a starring role, made information more available—and removed social restrictions on who publishes new content.2
So, why would having more access to information be a problem? As career coach Penelope Jones observes, “If the majority of our inbox is overly full of things that are not important, not relevant and often not interesting, it can be easy to miss the things that are genuinely important or interesting, or to see something, get distracted and then mentally move on.”3
As more and more information is published more frequently and in new, more invasive ways, attention spans diminish.4 Then, there’s the dilemma of whether sources and their information are credible. The irony of this is, though researchers warn of social media’s potential ill effects on health, it’s also one of the newest vehicles healthcare professionals can use to connect with their patients.5,6
Side Effects of Social Media: Pros and Cons
The average person spends nearly two and a half hours a day on social media.7 But research suggests that level of use isn’t healthy for everyone.
A 2021 study conducted by Brigham Young University (BYU) found that teenage girls who were logged in for 2-3 hours a day were more at risk for the negative influence of extended social media use. “Research shows that girls and women in general are very relationally attuned and sensitive to interpersonal stressors, and social media is all about relationships,” said BYU professor and study author Sarah Coyne. “At 13, girls are just starting to be ready to handle the darker underbelly of social media, such as FOMO (fear of missing out), constant comparisons and cyberbullying. A 13-year-old is probably not developmentally ready for three hours of social media a day.”8
But social media is not necessarily a bad thing. It can also be used to satisfy unmet needs for people. Mesfin Awoke Bekalu, research scientist in the Lee Kum Sheung Center for Health and Happiness at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said “We know that having a strong social network is associated with positive mental health and well-being. Routine social media use may compensate for diminishing face-to-face social interactions in people’s busy lives. Social media may provide individuals with a platform that overcomes barriers of distance and time, allowing them to connect and reconnect with others and thereby expand and strengthen their in-person networks and interactions.”9
Social media does have some proven benefits for mental health.
- Fosters community and togetherness, giving even those who live alone more potential connections10
- Allows users to keep in touch with friends and family members from great distances11
- Makes it easy to share knowledge and information12
However, the reverse is also true for some who use social media.
- Decreases number and quality of in-person interactions13
- Encourages dependency on devices, which can cause anxiety for those trying to keep up with notifications and alerts9
- Causes depression and anxiety in younger users9
As with anything in life, moderation and balance are key. Social media has become such an ingrained part of our existence that it isn’t realistic or necessarily beneficial to cut it out completely. The 2020 study “Social Media and Mental Health: Benefits, Risks, and Opportunities for Research and Practice” explains “Being aware of [social media] risks is an essential first step, before then recognizing that use of these popular platforms could contribute to some benefits like finding meaningful interactions with others, engaging with peer support networks, and accessing information and services.”14 One potential positive use would allow patients to connect with their healthcare providers on these platforms.
There are a few steps you can take to help yourself navigate social media in your personal life with less stress.15
- Turn down the notification noise.
“You don’t need to see everyone’s opinion on every single issue,” writes researcher Renee Goyneche. “Use your filters and lists liberally and turn off notifications so that you’re not tempted to respond to every post or comment.”
- Introduce a level of purpose.
Focus on who and what you follow on social media feeds. Eliminate the things that increase your anxiety. “We often default to surfing the internet out of habit rather than for an actual purpose, and wind up falling down the rabbit hole, reading article after article that doesn’t really address any specific need for information,” Goyneche says.
- Take a step back.
Find an activity that removes you from the temptation of social media access. “Take a walk or get a coffee. Grab a book and read over your midday meal instead of playing on your phone,” says Goyneche. “Go to the gym. Pick up a paintbrush. Any activity that engages your mind and body in a different way helps to break the overload cycle.”
The Social Media and Healthcare Connection
Some health professionals are beginning to use social media and other new technologies to meet the general populace where they are and bring healthcare to them.
“In recognizing that many individuals living with mental illness use social media to search for information about their mental health, it is possible that they may also want to ask their clinicians about what they find online to check if the information is reliable and trustworthy,” the previously mentioned ‘Social Media and Mental Health’ study states. “Therefore, mental health clinicians may be ideally positioned to talk with their patients about using social media and offer recommendations to promote safe use of these sites while also respecting their patients’ autonomy and personal motivations for using these popular platforms.”14
Here are just a few of the ways healthcare professionals are using social media and other new technologies to connect with patients.
Using the Internet as the world’s largest medical library. The wealth of information online, and the ease with which it’s updated, means doctors can stay up to date on the latest research, technology, and treatments.16
Encouraging accountability between patients and providers. Reviews are ubiquitous on social media, and doctors work with the knowledge that any patient can publish their experience in a matter of minutes. Eighty-seven percent of consumers read online reviews for local businesses.17
Producing apps so patients can track progress toward health goals. Around 42% of U.S. consumers use health and fitness apps. These apps can help encourage patients to achieve their goals or track progress between doctor’s appointments. Approximately half of app users share their data with their physician.18
Creating accurate, credible resources. Because anyone can publish information online, some healthcare providers feel a responsibility to provide their patients with content they can trust—and to share that content on social media.19 Many doctors are becoming social media influencers and amassing an online following.20,21
Scheduling appointments and following up with patients. When patients can use social media to request appointments, and doctors choose this channel for follow-up conversations, agile response time is a big benefit.
Social media may just be a powerfully effective way for providers and patients to communicate, and to combat misinformation. “Doctors may be able to help to mitigate the medical misinformation mess by curating and disseminating evidence-based content to the general public via social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook,” states Dr. Samuel P Trethewey.22