If you've ever scrolled through Instagram, you've probably seen advice on everything under the sun from so-called influencers. But one recent study found that influencers are responsible for an alarming amount of inaccurate health advice. Even more alarming is a study from PwC Health Research noting that almost 90% of people ages 18-24 would engage in health activities or trust information found via social media. While social media has undeniably made us more connected than ever before, and one (great!) part of that connection is exchanging new information, having so much information without context can make it easy to spread information. So how do you separate the influencers giving legit advice from the ones posting harmful health recommendations?
"Seeking health advice online isn’t always a bad thing, but there are important things to keep in mind," Dr. Riza Conroy, a primary care physician at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells Bustle. "Remember that online sources vary widely in credibility and there’s a difference between health information accessible to healthcare providers and the online [health] information available to the general public. Your healthcare provider can help put online information into context."
Another way to ensure the advice you're taking from an influencer is the real deal is to discern whether or not it's able to be independently verified. This means searching for peer-reviewed studies and trusted news sources that can back up the claims. "Patients can stumble upon websites not based on valid scientific studies. And when inaccurate information is treated as fact, it may cause harm to anyone who acts on its recommendations," Dr. Conroy explained in a blog post she wrote about the dangers of following health advice from online sources.
Remember when Kim Kardashian faced backlash a few years ago for promoting an anti-nausea drug without listing the potential side effects? Anyone tempted to try the medication could easily turn to a reputable source to read what was left out of the promotion. The issue is that most people don't have the time (or the interest) to do that.
Before taking or asking your doctor for a medication, you can read all the potential side effects on the medication database Drugs.com, a site Dr. Conroy recommends for verifying online health claims along with other reputable sources like the National Institutes of Health, MedlinePlus, which is part of the U.S. Library of Medicine, and the American Academy of Family Physicians.
When considering taking health advice from a social media influencer or a blogger, it's also smart to determine if the influencer is endorsing a brand and whether or not the advice is based in science. Are they presenting you with facts, or sharing claims they're being paid to support? It's not always clear.
"Currently, no standards exist to assess the credibility of influencers' blogs", Christina Sabbagh, first author of a study about the validity of influencer health advice from the University of Glasgow in the UK, said in a press release. "Given the popularity and impact of social media, all influencers should be required to meet accepted scientifically or medically justified criteria."
Blogs or influencers that offer information on weight management should be looked at with particular scrutiny, the study suggests. "We found that the majority of the blogs could not be considered credible sources of weight management information, as they often presented opinion as fact and failed to meet UK nutritional criteria," Sabbagh said. "This is potentially harmful, as these blogs reach such a wide audience."
The bottom line is that if your favorite influencer is touting some new-fangled thing that looks amazing or sounds too good to be true, following the advice without verifying it could lead to making changes in your daily habits that aren't optimal for your body. It's fine to experiment with your wellness routine — just make sure you do your research, and talk with your doctor if anything seems fishy. #TheMoreYouKnow