With a quick scroll, you’ll still come across a sea of ‘wellness’ influencers, many giving unqualified and potentially damaging health advice, whether it’s around celery juice as a cure-all, eating 400 bananas a day or avoiding sunscreen. Following celebrities and influencers for their rich and famous lifestyles is one thing, but the nature of influence is blurring the distinction between admiring someone’s washboard abs aboard their champagne-popping superyacht, and their views on the latest diet or whether or not we should vaccinate our kids (we should, for the record).
The question is – who are YOU influenced by when it comes to your health?
The concept is something that gets on the nerves of Dr Nikki Stamp, a cardiothoracic surgeon who has become somewhat of a crusader for better health literacy when it comes to what we see online. She says the instant gratification of social media platforms lends itself beautifully (and dangerously) to our desire for a quick fix when it comes to our health.
“We are a little bit disillusioned with medicine, it isn’t sexy,” she explains. “You can’t take a sexy picture of you know, your tablets, whereas you can dress up your celery juice or kale or whatever it is you’re into and make it look beautiful. We want to be able to go out and eat, drink, be merry, but then have this quick-fix juice, food, supplement or exercise that erases all of those choices. It’s a fundamental cultural issue bringing this kind of fake wellness or fake science to the forefront at the moment.”
It’s clear that we still want to be getting our health advice from experts. It’s the reason people who live in NSW visit a doctor six times a year, on average. So surely following a few ‘harmless’ influencers online is fine, right? Could our feed really be harming our health?
“We see following a diet or dabbling in some health trend as benign but the reality is that it’s not,” says Dr Stamp. “You can start off by following a health trend which might seem harmless but we can’t deny that it can be a slippery slope into more dangerous areas. Social media is a freely accessible platform for us to express a long-standing ideal that health equals beauty or status. Now rather than just mass media, everyone is doing it - either providing the information or belonging to that tribe. The downside is that the information out there can be poor quality, opportunistic or even dangerous, and that really upsets me.”
Someone who gets just how dangerous it can be is Simone Landes – founder and director of experts agency The Lifestyle Suite, who says credibility is vital when it comes to who we’re listening to online.
“If people are going to be taking advice from someone in the media, they want someone who’s not going to flip-flop on philosophies or stance, who won’t just put their name to any product, who is happy to work with brands but does so on the basis of a shared philosophy and shared values,” she explains.
It’s the reason she has launched The Academy by TLS – a training program for experts who want to build a media profile, allowing more qualified people to drown out the ‘noise’ of influencers spreading potentially dangerous messages.
“We can’t stop unqualified influencers from sharing health advice online,” she adds. “What we can do is make sure more experts, from doctors to psychologists and athletes to entrepreneurs, are equipped to communicate their expertise in the media and online – giving Australians more qualified experts to follow, listen to and rely on, and that can only be a good thing.”
In the meantime, Stamp says it’s important we all develop our social media literacy skills.
“That means learning to spot the real from the fake which isn’t always easy,” she explains. “Look for the qualifications of that person, if they can reference and back up what they say. There is definitely a role for regulation here and that may come from governments or better yet, from social media platforms.”
It’s a concept she explores in her new book Pretty Unhealthy. So does Stamp herself ever fall prey to the pitfalls of social media?
“Oh my goodness - YES! I didn’t realise until I started writing the book and following a whole bunch of probably dangerous or at least unhelpful accounts,” she says. “I was actually quite surprised at how much it upset me. I unfollowed them all once I had finished writing and felt so much better! I can’t recommend unfollowing highly enough.”