YouTube is one of the web’s most essential websites. In fact, it’s the second most popular social media platform in the world, with more than 1.9 billion registered accounts and about 500 hours of video uploaded every minute.
YouTube’s success isn’t solely because of its entertainment factor. It’s also a great way to make money through advertising and engagement. Tap or click here to see how one product reviewer on YouTube made $40,000 in a month.
But just because a platform is successful and entertaining doesn’t mean you should rely on it for information. Due to how YouTube is structured, it’s easy for misinformation and conspiracy theories to spread like wildfire — and it can have a detrimental effect on your health. Here’s why.
Health illiteracy: An American epidemic
A 2003 study performed by Michigan State University determined that only 12% of adults were sufficiently knowledgeable on health-related topics. Later studies have since backed up this data, which shows that a large swathe of Americans have difficulty understanding health-related topics or following health-related instructions like the kind found on medicine bottles.
In spite of this, 75% of Americans turn to the internet first for answers to their burning health questions — according to the Health Information National Trends Survey. And of the resources Americans turn to, YouTube remains one of the most popular options.
This is because video is easier to digest than text, and narrators or hosts can break down complex topics into easy-to-understand soundbites. While it’s a good thing that people care enough to learn more about health-related topics, a lack of health literacy can make it difficult to discern facts from falsehoods.
And that’s exactly why YouTube can be a dangerous place to research health topics — particularly during the age of COVID-19. Just like how conspiracy theory videos can dominate political searches on YouTube, health misinformation can climb to the top of people’s recommendations and searches with ease.
If people are being misinformed on health-related topics, it can be dangerous to their well being. For example, quack COVID-19 cures like the infamous Miracle Mineral Solution can kill or injure people, so why are videos containing this sort of content so readily promoted?
As with most things in life, it’s all about money.
The rules of engagement
YouTube is designed to keep you spending as much time on the platform as possible. This means the website will do whatever it can to draw your eyeballs for more time. The more videos you end up watching, the more advertisements you’re likely to see. And every ad you watch helps pay a YouTube creator and the platform itself.
To cement this strategy, YouTube promotes videos that get more engagement from users. This simply means if people spend more time watching and interacting with the content, the YouTube search engine will think you’ll find it interesting. The entire platform is designed this way from the ground up.
Unfortunately, popularity doesn’t always equal truthfulness. In fact, it’s much easier to get more views by sensationalizing information or reaffirming people’s existing beliefs. This is the entire reason why conspiracy theories clog up so much of the platform.
Where should I turn to for medical information?
If YouTube isn’t the right place to go for medical information, where should we turn to? Obviously, platforms like WebMD and symptom checkers can be convenient, but these platforms have their own algorithm issues that match symptoms to more serious illnesses like cancer more than they need to. Tap or click to see why symptom checkers give you “Googleitis.”
The best resources, in this case, are going to be public health organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC has been around since way before COVID-19, and its official website offers a wealth of information on both infectious diseases and medical conditions that threaten millions of Americans every day.
Other reliable resources include certified medical centers such as the Mayo Clinic, which features scientifically validated information on all of its articles.
Ultimately, you’ll want to find the information you’re looking for in places where doctors frequent. They’re exposed to medical topics every day, as opposed to many YouTubers, who may have read a few Wikipedia articles here and there.
Anyone can make a YouTube video, but it takes a doctor to post on certified medical websites and platforms. We know who we’d want to stick with.