Gen Z, Social Media, and the Uptick of Medical Misinformation
Gen Z: The First Inherently Technological Generation
Generation Z—those individuals born after 1997— is starting to fill higher education seats, professional environments, and social settings. In fact, US. Representative Maxwell Frost (D-FL) from Florida became the first Gen Z to have a seat in Congress in January 2023. However, the influx of young people into these settings has also created space for contemporary problems.
With a generation that grew up in a constant "technological environment," the consequences "are only now coming to focus." Especially after a global pandemic where most of Gen Z was forced into restructuring their lives to fit online alternatives, social media and online servers now hold more relevancy than in past generations. According to Prabhakar Raghavan, a senior vice president at Google, young people are now using social media apps–—like Tik Tok or Instagram — as alternative search engines to Google.
Gen Z's complex relationship with social media—which strengthened after the COVID-19 pandemic— has led to adverse effects regarding their understanding of credible sources. The spread of false information, the abundance of data, and the algorithmic structure of social media programming have created bias and distortion of risk perception. This is concerning when it comes to more serious subjects, for instance, medical and health-related conversations.
Social Media and Medical Disinformation
The spread of medical disinformation on social media dates back to the creation of these sites. However, "the spread of false and misleading health information has increased substantially in recent years." Though COVID-19 misinformation on social media has been a significant issue recently, vaccines, drugs and tobacco use, communicable diseases, medical treatments and interventions, and mental health-related issues are among the other topics commonly misrepresented and misinformed in the media.
The distribution of false information through these platforms creates negative attitudes toward the medical community and forms a distrust for health officials and mandates. The fast nature of false information dissemination through platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok has been proven to delay care, influence the misallocation of health resources, and increase hateful and divisive rhetoric.
“Dr Tik Tok”: Getting a Diagnosis On Social Media
Nevertheless, a new trend pertaining specifically to Gen Z and younger millennials has been on the rise. Young people nowadays are hesitant to believe official health information, but unlike their older counterparts, they also heavily rely on influencers and content creators as reliable sources of the medical field.
This phenomenon could be attributed to the current state of the United States healthcare system. Medical services and insurance can be very costly and sometimes unattainable for many individuals, especially young adults and teenagers. In fact, the Affordable Care Act attempted to bridge the gap in 2011 by "enabling 3 million young adults to gain insurance coverage through the provision of dependent private insurance coverage expansion up to age 26." Nevertheless, only some have the opportunity to be considered a dependent on a private insurance policy. A 2016 study found that the average cost of coverage for a 21-year-old could average from 180 to 426 dollars a month, depending on the state, with a high deductible ranging from 2,160 to 5,112 dollars.
Paired with responsibilities like schooling and work, many Gen Zers are attracted to the affordability and accessibility that platforms like Tik Tok provide. Eva Keller, 28, claims she has found more support within the community on Tik Tok than from her doctors. When sharing her symptoms with medical professionals, Keller said she felt misunderstood and dismissed. She ran into what she calls a "diagnostic wall" with no further help from her doctors. Thus, Keller decided to follow the advice from women with similar symptoms to hers rather than prompting her doctors to give her a proper diagnosis. However, as Matthew A. Dolman, founder and senior partner at Dolman Law Group, states, "It is important to research an issue and determine if the source for a claim or alleged finding was sourced by a reputable journal."
Unfortunately, this has not been the case with Gen Z as social media actively influences their medical decisions. Dolman urgently warns that it is essential to "be wary of anecdotal evidence as what worked for one person may not apply to all, and you could be subjecting yourself to further danger." In recent years, medical professionals have seen young people self-diagnose, especially when it comes to mental illnesses, and although it could benefit them in some cases, many risk getting the wrong treatment and avoiding professional assessments altogether. For instance, Dr. Laurel Kramer, a psychologist at St. Mary's Behavioral Health, states that the conditions often misdiagnosed on TikTok include borderline personality disorder, schizophrenia, bipolar, dissociative identity disorder, among other illnesses. Dr. Kramer attributes this detrimental phenomenon to platforms like TikTok—with easy-to-consume videos— and young people having an impressionable mind due to self-isolation, fatigue, etc. "It's how much time they're spending" on Tik Tok and other social media platforms, and "if they are watching the same kind of video about a specific mental illness" repeatedly that causes these "harmful and intrusive" consequences to their emotional well-being, says Dr. Kramer.
The abundance of information on these social media platforms makes it difficult for medical professionals to stop young people from becoming fixated on the diagnosis Tik Tok gives them. Annie Barsh, a licensed marriage and family therapist, states that it has become a competition between health professionals and Tik Tokers for who can provide the correct diagnosis. The problem with these self-diagnoses is that they can be “inaccurate or overly simplistic,” as Dr. Anish Dube from the American Psychiatric Association highlights.
Moreover, many professionals are concerned about the glamorization of certain illnesses through social media. Sara Hawkins, a licensed marriage and family therapist, states—after conversing with her son Ronan—that for young people, “it has become trendy to identify with a mental health disorder,” and “it is considered a personality trait rather than something you want to heal.” This approach is detrimental to those needing urgent specialized treatment and also to those simply experiencing difficulties relating to everyday life affairs.
Moving Forward: How to Prevent Medical Misinformation
How can young people prevent this phenomenon from continuing in the future? Dr. Eric Burnnet from Columbia University calls for individuals to increase their health literacy. Enhancing critical thinking skills and fact-checking sources can easily prevent an individual from believing false information.
Yet, not all movements happening on these platforms are negative. For instance, Dr. Burnett has used the same medium responsible for the proliferation of incorrect data—TikTok— to debunk myths and conspiracies about the pandemic by sharing his expertise online. Furthermore, John Piancentini, a UCLA professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences, states that Tik Tok has helped fill the gap for young peers' need for community and validation—it has become "a new coping strategy." In many cases, it has also begun conversations about mental health disorders otherwise stigmatized.
Therefore, it is essential to note that social media is not the enemy. It is interconnected with Gen Z as both have developed together. However, it is each individual's duty to navigate these platforms responsibly and call others to do the same. It is essential to combat this misinformation crisis in a compassionate and empathetic manner—carefully addressing the reasons why people came across this information in the first place. As Abbie Richards, MS, states, "Our willingness to believe misinformation often comes from a place of vulnerability."