Social Media and Health – Food Matters Live seminar got me thinking…

See original imageSocial media is radically changing the way we communicate.  There are some great things happening using social media, debates can really get out there and good users of social media (which I sadly don’t count myself in that bracket) really use it well to get a message out there, they reach a wide audience and not just an audience who are self selected but to a broad range of social media users across the spectrum of views.

But….isn’t there always a but……and I am not being ‘bah humbug’ to technology advances (I wish I could embrace them with more confidence)……there are a few things we should be aware of, especially when there is a bit of uncertainty or some science to be explained or complex issues to convey.

A lot of social media, like Twitter and Facebook, lends itself to short messages and is scanned not read with great levels of thought and consideration.  More complex, less black and white information is not so easy to get across this way.  And let’s face it – a lot of healthy eating issues or concepts like the sugar tax on soft drinks fall into this category, if you are communicating responsibly from an evidence based stand point.

Sharing links to great journalism or science or deeper explanation can be achieved but realistically it is mainly the engaged and interested that follow those links and who take the time to read these in detail.  Even then, there is often very little time to explore these links.  Most people consume what is in their Twitter and Facebook feed like fast food, grab and go, not like a well thought out home cooked dinner or leisurely meal with friends, taking time to choose, digest, enjoy, critique.

As a result, simple to understand messages that need little explanation, or more to the point, don’t have good back up information, can gain a traction that better argued or reasoned, or less clear cut message can in this media.  This can have an overall negative effect with regards to health messages. I believe that a lot of fad diets or simple messages like’ x food/nutrient is bad’ or ‘eat this way to cure all health ills/get thin/look beautiful’ can get accepted as normal very easily through sharing in this media.  Especially when there is a book to be sold or a product to be advertised.  A lot of time and effort can be directed to social media in a way that people with something more complex to say, particularly independent experts, don’t have time to do or don’t do frequently or simply may not be in the social media circles to really counteract the messages to balance the story.

That is the other big issue with social media.  Social media networks can be very self selecting.  I support the soft drink sugar levy.  Unsurprisingly, a lot of the people in my my networks share my view.  They may have a different views and those views are more likely to be based on fact.  These people also understand that this one measure is not the silver bullet to fix obesity and that it is one very small part of what needs to be a very broad raft of strategies.

So I might have a rosy picture that most people think it is a good idea.  I may not share information on the evidence behind it and even if I did would those things reach people who disagree and they would challenge my view.  I can’t challenge different views if the people in my networks generally share my views.  If I networks don’t cross over then people with different opinions can’t truly debate.  So this means that sometimes debate across different views is much more limited than we are led to believe.

I think we saw this very clearly during the Brexit Vote and in the US elections. A very large proportion of people have quite self selected groups in their social media – people with similar outlooks and views.  The sharing of information and news articles tends to confirm what they believe as opposed to challenge their thoughts or bring new information that they may not have considered. Whilst there are some people with very mixed networks and some who purposely reached across the divide, I think they are in the minority.  In reality, social media tended to polarise voters more.  Each side comfortable with the set of beliefs and fears with very little real challenge only reinforcing the instinctive vote not really allowing the head to engage with both sides of the argument.

Or my food world, how much does social media help people to make balanced, reflective decisions about what food to choose?  Or does it do more to encourage impulsive choices that may not be based in fact?

It is known that food choice is a very complex thing, that just because people have a set of values of what they want to choose they don’t always choose that way.  It is also known that we are influenced by people whom we trust and we may feel that we can trust those that we have selected to be in our social media circle.  It is very, very easy to ‘share’ something on social media, without really reading it fully, based on just a single message.

So what is the message after my little observation of social media.  We need to be careful making choices and being influenced by something on a social media feed just like in any other media.  Don’t believe everything that you read!  Is someone selling you something?  Do they have a vested interest in this piece of information they are sharing?  Does it sound too good to be true? Seek out an independent view, another opinion, some facts.  If you are interested in food and health then look for feeds from Registered Nutritionists and Dietitians to get evidence based facts on the latest food health story.  There are some great folk out there. Be careful what you share.


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