Young people are using a mix of professional medical literature and information they find on social media to manage chronic health conditions, a new study has found.
The paper, published in the journal Health Expectations, found people aged between 18 and 30 “actively and effortlessly negotiate between professionally produced content such as official leaflets or medical guidelines, and online user-generated content” when dealing with the effects of long-term conditions such as diabetes or depression.
Researchers at the University of Glasgow interviewed 40 young people from across the UK, many of whom attested to using websites such as Facebook to access information from peers who spoke about the process of dealing with their diagnoses.
It was found that engagement with such content through social media channels supported the interviewees’ knowledge and understanding of their respective conditions, and that young people also used the sites to reach out to others who shared similar experiences in an attempt to reduce feelings of isolation.
Speaking to The Irish Times, report author Dr Gillian Fergie said all participants in the study were well-versed in the use of social media, and appreciated the potential pitfalls of unquestioningly accepting non-professionally proofed information they found online.
“We definitely always have to be careful, but I think what this study shows is that people are pretty well-adapted and they’re familiar with the social media environment, and that health information is being assimilated into that environment that they’re used to engaging in,” she said.
“Whereas before someone would ask their mum or someone they knew, this is offering a new opportunity because it’s making it easier to reach people and get information from people who aren’t your relative or close friend,” she added.
Dr Fergie indicated that this new phenomenon may provide an opportunity for traditional and official sources of health information to keep abreast of changing preferences among young people in the way they access advice.
“I think it’s really important that we keep up to date with how people are using social media and make sure that anything that is introduced as a way of using the internet for health promotion or to disseminate health information... is very much in line with their current online practices, and isn’t just using social media for social media’s sake,” she said.
Responding to the research, the director of Ireland’s largest health information site for young people, SpunOut.ie, welcomed the findings but stressed the dangers of any attempt to self-diagnose online.
"This study shows that young people are looking to validate their experiences against other people's experiences, but it needs to be done in a managed way so all the information that a young person is getting is factual and can be relied upon," said Ian Power.
“If you’re going through search engines and social media, there’s a danger of creating anxiety about diagnoses that don’t exist or are not accurate,” he added.
Dr Mark Murphy of the Irish College of General Practitioners said the information provided on peer support group pages was so diverse that it can be "difficult for patients to find relevant material", and also advised against the dangers of self-diagnosis or self-medication.