Unsafe health claims dominate social media.  The health class can provide students with verification tools

Unsafe health claims dominate social media. The health class can provide students with verification tools

Dangerous — and possibly deadly — stunts often go viral on social media, but it’s relatively easy to explain to students why holding their breath until they pass out is a bad idea or why they shouldn’t boil chicken in Nyquil. Conversely, the health misinformation that students “learn” from online influencers can create toxic habits that may be harder to break, 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 without medical expertise, said author Monica Wang, an associate professor of community health sciences at Boston University and 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 the right media literacy skills to navigate information and misinformation online,” 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. Teens tended to find these topics more difficult or embarrassing to discuss, Wang noted, which may encourage them to rely more on online resources that can be searched anonymously.

These could have serious consequences for students’ long-term health habits, the analysis found. For example, a meta-analysis of 50 studies in 17 countries found that 15 to 47 percent of young adults engage in behaviors such as restrictive and compulsive eating and have full-blown eating disorders such as 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 in social media, they often lacked effective strategies to evaluate information. Studies reveal teens’ trust in online health information it had as much to do with their trust in a particular social media platform and users as it did with the actual health content.

“Students, while they may be tech savvy, they’re not smart in the sense of being able to meaningfully engage with the resources and the content itself,” said Sarah Benes, president of the Association for Physical Education and Health Education and a 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 have access to smartphones and social media from primary school. And educators are realizing the importance of incorporating these skills into the health curriculum. Society for Physical Education and Health EducationThe new K-12 standards, set to be released in March, include elements focused on media literacy and analyzing health impacts.

The standards are meant to “try to help students be able to understand not only if the sources are valid, but also understand how to confirm the information they’re reading,” Benes said. “It’s exploring all the elements you need to be able to identify a potentially unreliable source of information, look critically at what you’re reading, and determine the extent to which the claims made are accurate or true.”

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 the algorithmic biases that serve particular types of posts to their demographics; and knowledge of click-bait tactics.

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