Social media is a great way to get wellness tips and recommendations. Whether you’re looking for a new fitness tracking app, a yoga class or a creative way to get your kids eating vegetables, you can poll friends and strangers for ideas.
More and more, people are getting health advice on social media. However, questions about your health care are best directed to your doctor. Unless your Facebook friends are medical professionals, you might be receiving bad advice. If they are medical professionals, it’s inappropriate — and in many cases illegal — for them to give medical advice in a public forum.
Why is getting health advice on social media a bad idea? Here are four really good reasons.
1. Your Sources Might Be Unreliable
You know better than to believe everything you read, but you’re more likely to believe articles shared by people you trust. After all, your friends and family are smart, savvy and have your best interests in mind. They’re only going to share information they believe to be true. Still, they might be unintentionally sharing misinformation.
The Independent examined the 20 most-shared articles on Facebook in 2016 with the word “cancer” in the title. More than half of those articles made claims that have been widely discredited by medical professionals and reputable health organizations.
It’s hard to know what to believe on the internet — but when it comes to your health, you know who to trust. Checking in with your doctor takes longer than making a Facebook query, but you know for sure that you’re getting expert advice.
2. Your Doctor Knows the Latest Medical Research
Even if your friends and family got their information from a reliable source such as a medical professional or accredited health organization, they might not be sharing the most relevant or current insights.
Medicine is ever-evolving. Thanks to technological innovations and ongoing research, doctors are continuously learning and changing their recommendations based on new insights. For example, in the 1980s, most doctors still believed that stomach ulcers were caused by stress, and pediatricians told new parents that infants sleep better on their stomachs. Since then, scientists have proven that ulcers are caused by a treatable bacteria and that stomach sleeping significantly increases the risk for sudden infant death syndrome. And until recently, parents were told to hold off on peanut butter until at least age one, and until age three for children at high risk for peanut allergies. Now, scientists have shown that early exposure can help prevent peanut allergies, and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that high-risk babies consume it as early as four months old.
When it comes to health advice, you want the benefit of the latest, most cutting-edge research. Your doctor is far more likely to provide that than your social networks.
3. Symptoms Aren’t Enough to Make a Diagnosis
Health advice from your Facebook friends is often based on their personal experience with your symptoms. You might hear, “I was having the same problem, and it turned out to be X,” or, “That happens to me, too, and Y really helps.”
Just because two people have similar symptoms doesn’t mean they have the same problem or that the same treatment will help. In some cases, it could even hurt. For example, say you complain about back pain online. Your friend tells you that it’s probably a pinched muscle from too much sitting and suggests yoga, which “worked wonders” for her back pain. Your uncle then tells you that it’s probably a herniated disk and suggests alternating heat and ice. None of that seems like bad advice — but if you actually have a kidney infection, pneumonia or another condition that causes back pain, it might be.
Your doctor understands all of the possibilities and knows how to ask the right questions to determine what’s causing your pain.
4. Your Friends Have Cognitive Biases
Cognitive biases are mental models that your brain creates based on your own experiences. This enables your brain to make sense of the world and to make quick decisions. You can’t possibly know everything, so you make logical assumptions to fill in your knowledge gaps.
The problem is that cognitive biases are based on anecdotal evidence, so they can lead people to make false assumptions about cause and effect. For example, your friend claims that going gluten-free cured her diabetes. She hasn’t had gluten in months, and her blood glucose levels have been great. She’s scoured the internet and found other people who had the same experience. She knows you have prediabetes, so she insists you cut out gluten before it’s too late.
Her assumption makes sense based on what she knows about diabetes, her own experience and the experiences of a few other people. But her cognitive biases could be causing her to miss other factors. For example, her new gluten-free recipes might contain fewer fats and added sugars. Or maybe she also started exercising and has lost some weight.
Either way, her experience will not necessarily be your experience, and her advice might even be bad for you. Just last year, the American Heart Association presented evidence that low-gluten diets can actually increase your risk for developing diabetes. That’s based on the experience of 200,000 people, not just one.
Doctors can have cognitive biases, too — but when it comes to medicine, they have far fewer knowledge gaps than the average person. They see a bigger part of the puzzle, stay up to date on new research, and give health advice based on your unique symptoms, lifestyle and medical history. You don’t get that kind of personalized, expert insight when you’re getting health advice on social media.