YouTube, TikTok, Twitter (now “X”), Facebook, and Instagram. These are just a few examples of popular social media platforms that contribute to the current digital landscape. It is estimated that over 4.74 billion people around the world are social media users (1). In Canada, specifically, over 85% of the population uses social media (2). This includes 6 in 10 adults aged 50 to 64 and 1 in 3 older adults aged 65 or over (3). Those who use social media spend a pretty significant chunk of time doing so – an average of nearly two and a half hours a day (1).
What exactly is this phenomenon that has so many of us logged-in and engaged? Social media refers to technologies that allow us to construct interactive online communities and share information, pictures, knowledge, opinions, and more.
Health-related information is commonly shared via social media. For instance, you may notice advice and instructional or educational videos on how to eat healthier, be more active, and enhance your mental health. But can using social media improve our health and well-being?
A recent systematic review helps to answer this question by looking at whether interactive social media programs can improve healthy behaviours (such as diet, physical activity, and smoking), physical health (such as weight and heart rate), well-being, and mental health (such as depression) in adults. Interactive social media programs, which allow users to communicate with one another, are compared to non-interactive strategies such as in-person programs, paper-based programs, or nothing (4).
What the research tells us
The interactive social media programs included within the review used platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, WeChat, WhatsApp, Google Hangouts, and web-based networks or apps that imitate how social media platforms work to deliver programming.
The studies included in the review were found to be of low quality and more research is needed. However, the currently available evidence suggests that, compared to non-interactive strategies, interactive social media programs may help to improve physical activity levels (specifically the number of daily steps), engagement in screening tests, weight loss, and resting heart rate by small amounts, as well as well-being. Unfortunately, there may be little to no effect on diet, tobacco use, or mental health. Additionally, there is considerable uncertainty around the safety of the interactive social media aspect of these programs, as none of the studies assessed if negative side effects occurred (4).
While these results show that social media may be helpful in some areas, it is important to make sure the information and programs you are accessing are from credible sources, such as public health organizations or practitioners.