Paging Dr TikTok: Is your social feed becoming a health hazard?

Social media can be a great way to raise awareness. But when it comes to medical advice, health experts warn we should scroll with caution.

If you’ve ever stumbled across a social media post that looks like the answer to your health concerns, you wouldn’t be the first person to dabble in a bit of online self-diagnosis.

But is it sensible – or even safe – to trust your wellbeing to an algorithm?

According to the experts, probably not.

Is all health advice on social media bad?

Mental health therapist Stella Ladikos says the upside of social media health content is it can motivate people to get professional help.

“People often come to me and say, ‘I saw this thing on TikTok and I wondered if it might be what’s happening to me,” Stella says.

“So, it can be a way to raise awareness and encourage people to seek support – especially in the mental health space, which is still so stigmatised and misunderstood.”

Charles Sturt University academic Dr Andrey Zheluk says his research into the pros and cons of medical advice on TikTok shows it’s also an effective way to engage young people about their health.

“Young people don’t watch TV or read newspapers, they watch TikTok, so it can be a way to reach younger people about health problems,” Dr Zheluk says.

What are the pitfalls of health advice on social media?

Heart Smart Australia cardiologist Dr Ross Walker warns social media can also be a source of misinformation, dangerous advice and extravagant claims.

This was particularly evident during the COVID-19 pandemic when the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) was forced to issue a warning following a slew of false and misleading advice from several high-profile influencers.

“If you have some glitzy influencer trying to push something, you know it’s probably dodgy,” Dr Walker says.

Stella says content encouraging extreme restrictions or behaviours is a serious concern.

“Any influencer telling you to completely cut something out, or to ‘never do this’ or ‘always do that’ is a massive red flag,” she says.

Dr Zheluk cautions against posts that are all style and no substance.

“It’s important to recognise that TikToks essentially works like TV commercials – they generally don’t provide much context,” he says.

And if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

“Unfortunately, so much of what you see on social media are quick fixes – incredible promises that don’t work,” Dr Walker says.

“Good health is a lifelong program, not something that goes for a few weeks.”

Above all, our experts say always check a person’s credentials.

“If they don’t have qualifications, keep scrolling,” Dr Walker says.

When in doubt, trust the experts

Stella says there’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to managing wellness.

“Taking any form of health advice and applying it to your life without other considerations or professional guidance can cause more harm than good,” she says.

Dr Walker agrees. “People should not be getting their major advice from people who are not well-qualified professionals,” he says.

“The best thing for long-term health management is to have a good relationship with a trusted physician.”

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Written by Dimity Barber.