Finding trustworthy online health information is hampered by the wide choices available for the user. This can even lead to misleading information, and makes social media content pretty unsafe, authors of a recent article, published recently in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, have concluded.

The article, “Misleading Health-Related Information Promoted Through Video-Based Social Media: Anorexia on YouTube” sought to examine social networking platforms for user-generated content to be exchanged among peers. Why the study? Shabbir Syed-Abdul, of the Graduate Institute of Medical Informatics, College of Medical Science and Technology, Taipei Medical University, Taipei, says social media content can no longer be ignored, given their wide influence. To quote the paper “Approximately 100 million people take some form of social action on YouTube (likes, shares, and comments) every week.”

Many different stakeholders generate health-related content on social media platforms, the paper states. For example, health consumers publish videos about their diseases on YouTube, traditional health portals, such as NHS Choices, Mayo Clinic, and PubMed, use social media channels (eg., YouTube and Facebook) to distribute their content.

According to the paper, online information about anorexia provides a good example of potentially harmful online information. Anorexia is an eating disorder (involving restriction of food intake out of fear of gaining weight) which has a huge impact on the health and quality of life of sufferers. “The aim of this study was to investigate anorexia-related misinformation disseminated through YouTube videos,” Dr. Shabbir says. Three doctors reviewed 140 videos with approximately 11 hours of video content, classifying them as informative, pro-anorexia, or others. The 40 most-viewed videos (20 informative and 20 pro-anorexia videos) were assessed to gauge viewer behaviour.

Pro-anorexia information was identified in 29.3 per cent of anorexia-related videos, the paper says. Pro-anorexia videos are less common than informative videos; however, in proportional terms, pro-anorexia content is more highly favoured and rated by its viewers. The authors point out that efforts should focus on raising awareness, particularly among teenagers, about the trustworthiness of online information about beauty and healthy lifestyles. “More research is needed to study the characteristics of pro-anorexia videos in order to develop algorithms that will automatically detect and filter those videos before they become popular.”

Dr. Shabbir says, “The basic message of this study is to alert common people, teachers in school, parents and children that a lot of misleading information is available on Internet. They should learn how to distinguish misleading from trustworthy information.” While Anorexia is used as an example in the study, he adds, that the results can be generalised to all health-related information.

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