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Unsafe Health Claims Dominate Social Media. Health Class Can Give Students Vetting Tools

Dangerous—and perhaps even deadly—stunts often go viral on social media, but it’s relatively easy to explain to students why it’s a bad idea to hold their breath until passing out or why they shouldn’t simmer chicken in Nyquil. By contrast, health misinformation that students “learn” from online influencers can create toxic habits that can be harder to dislodge, according to a new analysis in the Journal of the American Medical Association-Pediatrics.

Children and adolescents increasingly adopt health advice from social media sources with no medical expertise, said author Monica Wang, an associate professor of community health sciences at Boston University and adjunct associate professor of health policy at Harvard University. She called for educators to integrate more critical thinking and research skills into health education.

“Schools play a crucial role in helping students develop adequate media literacy skills to navigate online information and misinformation,” Wang said. “Encouraging open dialogue and providing access to reliable resources are important to equip students and families with the tools they need to make informed, evidence-based decisions about their health.”

Some of the areas most rife with misinformation were around nutritional supplements and weight management, sexual health, immunizations, and vaping as a “healthier” alternative to smoking. Teenagers tended to find these topics more difficult or embarrassing to discuss, Wang noted, which could encourage them to rely more on online sources which could be looked up anonymously.

These can have serious consequences for students’ long-term health habits, the analysis found. For example, a meta-analysis of 50 studies across 17 countries found that 15 to 47 percent of young adults engage in behaviors like restricted and compulsive eating and have full-blown eating disorders like bulimia by age 20, and those who reported getting their health information online were more likely to develop an eating disorder.

While teenagers had a healthy skepticism about health claims they saw on social media, they often did not have effective strategies to evaluate the information. Studies find adolescents’ trust in online health information had as much to do with their trust in a particular social media platform and users as it does the actual health content.

“Students, even though they might be tech savvy, they’re not savvy in the sense of being able to meaningfully engage around the sources and the content itself,” said Sarah Benes, the president of the Society for Physical Education and Health Education and an assistant professor of school health education at Southern Connecticut State University.

Schools are introducing media literacy into the curriculum in earlier grades, as more children get access to smartphones and social media as early as elementary school. And educators are recognizing the importance of embedding these skills in the health curriculum. The Society for Physical Education and Health Education’s new K-12 standards, set to be released in March, include strands focused on media literacy and analyzing health influences.

The standards are aimed at “trying to help students be able to figure out not only if the sources are valid, but also figure out how to confirm information that you’re reading,” Benes said. “It’s exploring all the elements that you need in order to be able to identify a potentially not-reliable source of information, to look critically at what you’re reading and determine the extent to which the claims being made are accurate or truthful.”

Wang advised educators to go beyond identifying reputable sources to also teach students how to think critically about health claims, including verifying information using research tools and fact-checking sites; understanding algorithmic biases that serve up particular kinds of posts to their demographic; and recognizing click-bait tactics.

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