Be honest—how many times a day do you check your Facebook page? In a Facebook-sponsored study conducted by IDC, a global market intelligence research firm, researchers found that the average person checks Facebook 13.8 times a day for about two minutes and 22 seconds each time. And that’s only Facebook. Add in Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, YouTube, Instagram, Google Plus and more, and you’re looking at hours out of your day spent on social sites. Now, as with anything, there are pros and cons to getting your social media fix, especially when it comes to your health.
On one hand, it’s opened the door to up-to-the-minute health information and “free” experts at our fingertips. “Social media is creating opportunities for health information and our understanding of what it means to be healthy,” says Professor Brad Love, Ph.D., at the University of Texas at Austin Belo Center for New Media.
But on the other hand, it can be addictive and may lead to unnecessary stress. Here are seven ways—good and bad—that social media is affecting your health.
PRO: Twitter lets you share cutting-edge health info. According to a study published in the June issue of the American Journal of Infection Control, the official publication of Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology, researchers from the University of Texas at Austin analyzed 9,510 vaccination-related tweets from one week in 2012. The most popular messages? They concerned a potential children’s malaria vaccine, development of the NeuVax E-75 vaccine for breast cancer and the effectiveness of a herpes vaccine in women, among others. They found that Twitter users also share mostly reputable information and sources.
“I have found that many ‘rock-star researchers’ and thought leaders from the infection prevention world seem to frequent Twitter. They provide thoughtful evidence-based tweets with links to solid strategies…pay attention to who you listen to! The evidence is out there,” advises Deborah Burdsall, MSN, RN-BC, CIC, corporate infection preventionist at Lutheran Life Communities in Arlington Heights, Ill. This sharing and receiving of health information is creating a new definition for “spending quality time.”
PRO: Facebook helps you lose weight. Shedding pounds and changing lifestyle habits is challenging, and let’s face it, we all need all the support we can get in this arena. Which is why we love Facebook, in particular, as an excellent source for social support. Success stories like Barrie, Ontario-based Christina Taylor’s include using a Facebook page to keep you accountable for keeping up with good fitness and eating habits. Having shed 180 of her previously 380 pounds, Taylor even took her positive experience with Facebook to the next step, launching her own weight-loss coaching business, Christina Taylor Health & Fitness Training Studio.
“On the brighter side [of social media], there are plenty of healthy recipes, calorie counters, fitness apps, and support groups that are only a click away. Need to lose weight? Well, you can Facebook-message Bob Harper or Jillian Michaels, hashtag ‘fitness’ on Twitter to find all the related posts, or follow an exercise routine seen on YouTube,” says Crystal Heishman, BSN, RN, CIC, ONC, infection preventionist at the University of Louisville Hospital in Louisville, KY.
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PRO: YouTube makes your brain smarter. This incredibly visual (hello, videos!) social site is a mecca of how-to information. You can literally learn anything for a happier and healthier life. Tune in to top chefs to amp up your healthy cooking skills. Find out how aromatherapy essential oils can make every day more pleasant. Watch a panel of health care professionals talk about how you can manage stress. Figure out how to increase your libido or take care of an STD. And you can do it all before breakfast.
CON: Social media boosts your interest in plastic surgery. Have you ever gone on Facebook and clicked through friends’ and acquaintances’ photo galleries? Sure you have. Like you, they are probably only posting the best-of-the-best photos of themselves. Constantly looking at these “perfect” posts can add pressure to look beautiful — not just when you’re dolled up for a night out, but all the time. One study from researchers in Berlin confirmed this trend, reporting that scanning friends’ Facebook pages and photos can trigger feelings of envy and even loneliness. Another recent study of American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery’s board-certified plastic surgeons found a 31-percent increase in plastic surgery requests as a result of how people wanted to present themselves on social media. Maybe consider a therapy session first instead of jumping into a nose job, hmm?
PRO: Social media takes your doc off of speed dial. Instead of calling the usual health suspects — your GP — with a health issue, people are tweeting and Facebooking with their doctor, nurses and hospitals to get general health information. “Social media platforms are changing our health in nuanced, but profoundly important ways. They open us to more experts and informed sources than ever before. Social media also provides opportunities to develop relationships around health issues, and these relationships can build social and informational support essential to better health,” says Dr. Love. True. But while social media is an easy way to search for and receive general advice, it is not a substitute for in-person care. Meaning: If something’s really wrong with you, go to your doctor; don’t tweet her.
CON: Social media is making you an addict. You feel it, right? That knee-jerk impulse to check your Facebook or Twitter feed; to see who’s following your Pinterest page today; or be in-the-know about a new video posted on YouTube. It’s nonstop. Kind of like an addiction. In a study by researchers at the University of Winchester, frequent Facebook and Twitter users were asked to stop using their accounts for four weeks. The study found that the participants quickly became isolated from friends and family, reporting that they felt cut off from the world. “Social media has its pros and cons. It can be quite addicting to the point where you get a little lazy and inactive. You lose the whole face-to-face piece of conversations. (e.g. ‘I have to be on here because all of my friends are in this little box!’),” Heishman says. As with any “substance,” moderation is the key — consider dialing back your social usage a notch and use that time to spend with your family or on a hobby instead.
PRO: Pinterest provides a new workout routine. Really, Pinterest? Yes. Besides being every crafter’s dream, the visual inspiration board site provides a wealth of fitness tips and information. A plethora of infograms posted by fitness studios and experts alike take you step by step through everything from 40 targeted ab exercises to a daily workout routine. No budget for a gym or trainer? No problem. And…no more excuses!