Social media as a potential platform for health education/promotion is an intriguing topic, one that is ripe with controversial permutations in the halls of academia. I think that this may serve as an excellent example of a context in which graduates who obtained their degree in health education any more than two decades ago may be at a slight disadvantage in terms of utilizing social media as a tool in health promotion campaigns. At 56 years of age, I can personally recall a time when the only community health education available were pamphlets in the waiting room of doctor’s offices or at the local YMCA or community center, or sometimes in the form of “junk mail” from local hospital networks (I still get those in my mailbox).
I’ve decided to adopt a slightly less formal tone for this discussion, given the nature of the subject matter. Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of social media have in recent years de-evolved in many ways, reminiscent of the National Enquirer or The Globe in print media. When I log into Facebook these days, the sheer amount of rubbish posts on health and fitness propagated by seemingly reputable commercial entities is overwhelming! Most of the “health promotion” and “heath education” links are just advertisements for ridiculous “snake oil” products without any true science behind them. In this disturbing era of legitimate science sometimes labelled as “fake news”, the problem is that even when a respected institution of learning or legitimate health provider posts information on social media for mass dissemination, the data are often distrusted by the recipient. Yet, despite the inherent challenges of social media used for health promotion, health educators clearly cannot afford to ignore a form of public communication whose tentacles extend as far and wide as social media platforms. As with any tool created by humans, social media can either be misused as a weapon for spreading ignorance and misinformation or it can be used as a force for positive change.
Board-certified health educators would benefit greatly from formal training in the use of strategies for social networking to promote public health. Here are a few ideas that I came up with:
- Every medical center and care facility should have a Facebook site that posts daily information on health issues.
- Medical facilities should encourage their patients, especially a younger demographic, to “follow” them on Facebook or Twitter.
- Facebook and Twitter should have a symbol or alert feature which notifies users that the source of a post or tweet can be traced back to a legitimate trustworthy authority that has been verified by a government agency such as the FDA or NIH, as opposed to some shady supplement company trying to sell its ‘snake oil juice’ to unsuspecting consumers.
- Advertising and promotion of health-related products on Facebookand Twitter should be regulated by the FDA with disclaimers as applicable, same as any bottle of vitamins with the familiar FDA warning on the label.
- Schools and universities should take the initiative to launch massive health education/promotion campaigns utilizing Facebook and/or Twitter that updates users on the most current findings in research and dispenses diet and lifestyle recommendations accordingly. Such initiatives should emphasize to consumers that information disseminated on health-related topics should only be given credence if they originate from trusted academic sources.
- The general public need to be educated on the use of alternative search engines, instead of relying solely to Google, which has become a virtual wasteland of misinformation and advertising. Examples of reliable sources for nutrition and health-related news and the latest scientific studies include:
- Misinformation deliberately or inadvertently spread by any form of mass media, e.g. television and the Internet, such as the ridiculous ‘news story’ from a couple years back that misinterpreted and sensationalized a particular study which concluded that people should stop taking multivitamin/mineral supplements because they are “worthless” should have been immediately discredited on social media by the FDA or AMA or any respected institution of higher learning.
- Health-related government entities (e.g. CDC, PubMed, FDA, USDA) should all have a strong presence on social media platforms in this day and age, but they do not currently. Our tax dollars hard at work, right?
In conclusion, social media presents as a mostly untapped resource for health educators and promoters, not only because it reaches a much larger audience than most web sites or printed literature, but also because it caters to a largely uninformed population that tends to be afflicted with what I like to call a “smartphone attention span” and who are inundated daily by confusing and often conflicting data. In a political climate in which science is scorned and distrusted, in a time of ‘flat earthers’ and ‘climate change deniers’, is it any wonder that it has become so challenging to get out reliable information to the public on health-related matters?