Youth Blog – Fake News and Your Health
Written by David Moskowitz, PhD, Research Assistant Professor and Project Director for SMART. David has his PhD in health communication.
You might be familiar with this term that’s been showing up a lot in politics lately: “fake news.” It seems like everything is up for interpretation. Facts and opinions are all mixed up and trying to make sense of it all can leave your head spinning. But what about fake news and your health? You never thought about it, right? Well, in all seriousness, it’s time for every young person to really think about the health information that’s scrambling across their screen. It can be especially frightening when you’re looking for true facts about how best to take care of yourself and you aren’t sure which sources to believe. So what can you do to find true health news and facts that are important for you? Here are a few tips, based on advice from the National Institutes of Health , that you can take to the bank so that you don’t fall victim to fake health news:
1. Consider the source.
– Where you find health information will tell you A LOT about the information itself. Government agencies like the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Health and Human Services usually have strong data that has been tested by researchers. Individuals, on the other hand, even people claiming to be doctors or who may actually be doctors, may be trying to mislead you into using them or their services. Not all websites are created equally.
2. Focus on quality.
– Similar to the point about sources, finding health data that has been researched by scientists and checked by peer-review is really the only data that should be impacting the health decisions you make. To figure out if health information is of high quality, try to see what methods were used to get that information. If it’s what Grandma Sue thought in 1992, well, that should speak volumes of the quality. If it’s what Northwestern scientists found yesterday, those facts are probably better quality.
3. Be a cyber-skeptic.
– If it sounds too good to be true, it almost certainly is. Treatments and health plans (like weight-loss programs) usually come with a price, meaning there is someone out there trying to make a buck off you! Even if someone isn’t directly trying to take advantage of you, all information you find should be backed up in multiple, independent places around the web. Get a second opinion on just about anything you read online.
4. Look for the evidence.
– Health “facts” you find online aren’t facts until you see the medical research behind them. Know the difference between a health fact and a health opinion. If there is hard science and good methodology behind what is being said by a website, it’s probably true. However, if there is only a person’s experience, feelings, or attitudes about a health problem or treatment, even if that person claims to be an expert, you should still ask to see the science.
5. Check for timeliness.
– Back in the 1950s, doctors actually suggested to their patients that they smoke cigarettes. We know better now. Always make sure there is a time stamp or date on the web page you’re looking at or the study you’re reading about. Health facts are constantly improving and you want to stay on the cutting edge.
6. Beware of bias.
– When finding information online, ask yourself, “What is the purpose of the site and who is paying for it?” Look for words like “advertisement” or “sponsored content,” which means that what you’re reading is actually a promotion for a health treatment or product. These can be really tricky to spot. Generally, if what you’re reading is presenting you with both the problem and the solution, which you can buy from them, that’s probably fake health news.
7. Protect your privacy.
– Never give out health information or personal information about yourself in order to get health facts or information. If a site is asking for even basic info as a means to “give you better advice,” they may be scamming you. If you feel you need help with your health or treatment, see an in-person healthcare professional who legally can guarantee confidentiality.
8. Consult with your health professional.
– And finally, no online fact should be substituted for a frank and honest discussion with your health provider or doctor. They are going to know you best and know your health history. They’ll be able to make connections that no website can make. At the end of the day, it’s your body and you only get one. Don’t use “facts” online as a way to ignore real health problems you’re experiencing. Go see a doctor if you need to.
By following these 8 rules, you’ll be an expert at knowing what’s bull and what just might save your life!
Finding good health information on the Internet (Winter 2015). NIH MedlinePlus, 9(4), 14-18. Retrieved from https://medlineplus.gov/magazine/issues/winter15/articles/winter15pg14-18.html.
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