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Social media in health – what are the safety concerns for health consumers?

Recent literature has discussed the unintended consequences of clinical information technologies (IT) on patient safety, yet there has been little discussion about the safety concerns in the area of consumer health IT. This paper presents a range of safety concerns for consumers in social media, with a case study on YouTube. We conducted a scan of abstracts on ‘quality criteria’ related to YouTube. Five areas regarding the safety of YouTube for consumers were identified:

  1. harmful health material targeted at consumers (such as inappropriate marketing of tobacco or direct-to-consumer drug advertising);
  2. public display of unhealthy behavior (such as people displaying self-injury behaviors or hurting others);
  3. tainted public health messages (i.e. the rise of negative voices against public health messages);
  4. psychological impact from accessing inappropriate, offensive or biased social media content; and
  5. using social media to distort policy and research funding agendas. The examples presented should contribute to a better understanding of how to promote a safe consumption and production of social media for consumers, and an evidence-based approach to designing social media interventions for health. The potential harm associated with the use of unsafe social media content on the Internet is a major concern. More empirical and theoretical studies are needed to examine how social media influences consumer health decisions, behaviors, and outcomes, and devise ways to deter the dissemination of harmful influences in social media.

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