Helping youth harness the power of social media: Initiative teaches young Canadians how to create evidence-based health content

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the potential of social media to quickly disseminate health information to vast online communities, impacting health decisions, participation in health systems and, consequently, the health of entire populations.

Never-ending streams of online posts, tweets and videos sharing health-focused information resulted in a co-occurring “infodemic,” overwhelming the public with a combination of accurate information and harmful misinformation.

When considering daily social media consumption, Statistics Canada estimates that 15- to 34-year-old Canadians are the highest active user group on social media. Moreover, “viral” spread or waves of online engagement are often tied to online trends or influencers. From the 2018 Tide Pod challenge to the most recent Nyquil Chicken Challenge, trends quickly spread and can pose physical, mental and even destructive health consequences.

As online trends continue to perpetuate misinformation, these trends can lead to particularly harmful consequences in marginalized communities. Many Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC) communities continue to struggle with stressors relating to painful histories of exploitation, including medical experimentation, that can result in mistrust or skepticism of health-care systems. Furthermore, many BIPOC communities face an additional hurdle as the ingrained racism linked to colonialism within our health-care system impacts the delivery of health care and health information. Most existing online health information is Anglocentric, Eurocentric, text-heavy and based on the priorities of health-care providers. Likewise, online myth busting of health misinformation is available primarily on English platforms and spaces.

As such, there is a great need for health information to be tailored and adapted to the priorities of BIPOC communities. Thus, the Our Kids’ Health (OKH) network was established to create reliable resources and information for children, youth and caregivers across 10 different cultural-linguistic channels. Using an equity and diversity lens, social media content shared by OKH spans the continuum of child health and development from the neonatal period through childhood and youth development. The OKH online community has quickly grown to more than 400,000 followers globally, using a “trusted messenger” model in which information is delivered and co-created online with health-care providers who reflect each community’s diversity.

Most existing online health information is Anglocentric, Eurocentric, text-heavy and based on the priorities of health-care providers.

Many adolescents who find themselves fluent in social media have stated they are less inclined to review the integrity of social media posts they are planning to share. Adding to concerns is the fact that the average age of social media users continues to trend younger – 86 per cent of 9- to 11-year-olds in Canada have at least one social media account.

This summer, OKH launched the first-ever Digital Health Youth Fellows Program aiming to train a cohort of 25-30 youth digital content creators with a focus on BIPOC communities and health literacy. In this program, 15- to 24-year-olds will learn from experts in media literacy, health promotion and social media about ways to create high-quality, accessible and engaging health content. The aim is for youth to participate in creating evidence-based and culturally relevant health content that prioritizes the unique health challenges encountered in cultural-linguistic contexts. Participants also will learn how to become media literate as the program aims to teach them how to become informed consumers of social media content.

Youth completing this program will have the skills necessary to be leaders and online health influencers sharing reliable information and battling misinformation, with the potential to create positive health change in their diverse communities of origin. In fact, this group has already identified key areas in which to create evidence-based, reliable health content for their peers, including sexual health; racism; mental health and suicide; and healthy, active living.

Our youth are our future health-care leaders, so it is important they are equipped with the necessary tools to create equitable health information for all. By teaching youth the best practices to create and analyze health information, we can ensure that the leaders of tomorrow are able to balance both informed, evidence-based information with culturally sensitive considerations of the Canadian population.


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