• Social media sites have unexpected, under-reported benefits. (AAP)Source: AAP
We are quick to hear of the negative impacts of social media on our health - but sites such as Facebook and Instagram offer plenty of under-reported positives, too.
Mariam Digges

18 May 2016 - 8:57 AM  UPDATED 18 May 2016 - 8:57 AM

It’s rare to meet someone nowadays without at least one social media account.

Not too long ago, we communicated in person or via letters or phone calls. Now, we text and email, post on each other’s Facebook walls, tag friends on Instagram and send fleeting videos via Snapchat.

It’s a whole new, digitally powered world which is changing the face of communication.

According to the 2015 Sensis Social Media Report, 49 per cent of Australians use social media at least once a day, with those under 25 the most active.

These elevated numbers have raised concerns about the negative risks that social media poses on our health, with cyber-bullying, depression and sedentary behaviour all linked to its use.

While these issues are present and worthy of attention, it’s also important to acknowledge its positive – and often under-reported – health benefits.

Building community

The most widely recognised benefit of engaging in social media is its effective and efficient ability to create and nurture community.

"Before long, we were all posting baby photos and chatting on there about everything from car seat advice to child-friendly cafés and good doctors in the area."

On Facebook, an endless number of support networks are on offer. From groups uniting brain tumour sufferers, to quit-smoking groups, to region-specific parent support networks, the opportunities to connect seem limitless.

“I didn’t use Facebook at all until I had my daughter Charlotte,” Sydney mother Fran Windon says.

“Unlike most of my friends, I just never got into it.

“But my mothers´ group chose it as the way to communicate privately and arrange play dates. Before long, we were all posting baby photos and chatting on there about everything from car seat advice to child-friendly cafés and good doctors in the area.

“In those roller-coaster first few months after I got home from hospital, I looked forward to those updates and catch-ups.”

Mental health awareness

The issue of social media and mental health holds positives and negatives. A study sponsored by the US National Institute for Mental Health this year found a “strong and significant association between social media use and depression”. The more time users spent on such sites, the higher the incidence of depression, the study reported.

But when it comes to raising awareness of mental health, social media has made effective strides. Organisations such as beyondblue, Headspace and ReachOut are all harnessing the power of targeted digital campaigns to raise awareness of mental health issues, as well as to disseminate information about available support and health events.

With over 505,000 Facebook members, more than 121,000 Twitter followers and nearly 30,000 Instagram followers - and the first not-for-profit to use Snapchat and Tumblr in a campaign aimed at young people - beyondblue has built one of the country's most engaged online health communities.

beyondblue uses social media to connect with people and provide useful information and support to those experiencing depression, anxiety or at risk of suicide, and their loved ones.

“The constantly evolving online environment has changed the way everyone gets information, advice and news. beyondblue realises that this presents an opportunity for our messages and programs to reach more people than ever before,” said Dr Stephen Carbone, beyondblue's policy, research and evaluation leader.

“beyondblue uses social media to connect with people and provide useful information and support to those experiencing depression, anxiety or at risk of suicide, and their loved ones.”

Dr Carbone is also quick to point out the traps that social media can pose, such as spending too much time using it, trusting those you shouldn’t, and its ability to impact a person’s self-esteem.

“Social media plays a big role in the lives of young Australians and half of teenagers report that they worry about missing out if they take a break from being online. If you want to use social media mindfully, we encourage people to take breaks from being online, maintain perspective and make time for face-to-face catch-ups with your family and friends.”

Indigenous health advocacy

In Australia, the Indigenous health sector - in particular, the National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO) - was among the earliest adopters of social media.

“It didn’t feel like health, it felt like socialising.”

The use of social media to connect young adults successfully with public health campaigns around sexual health issues in remote Torres Strait Islander communities demonstrates this.

Powered by Queensland Health, the Kasa Por Yarn (“just for a chat”) campaign showed how Facebook, YouTube and text messaging were instrumental in reaching the target audience of 15- to 24-year-olds.

“It didn’t feel like health, it felt like socialising,” project leader Heather Robertson said of the campaign, which engaged musicians and actors to help communicate its message.

It works both ways

The data gathered by social media has been valuable to health research, particularly in the mental health sector. The CSIRO’s WeFeel project, which gauges public sentiment and its reaction to a particular crisis or event (such as a federal election or global tragedy), was able to pre-empt an emotional response and ensure adequate support was available.

Similarly in other sectors, healthcare professionals have been able to employ social media to further their studies. A Victorian study group exploring the effectiveness of the Australian human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine program recruited more than 95 per cent of the its participants (females aged 16-25) via targeted advertising on Facebook.

Inspiring a healthy lifestyle

While Twitter use frequency has almost halved since 2011 from an average of 23 visits to 12, the popularity of Instagram is on the rise, with Australians using the site nearly 26 times a week on average (2015 Sensis Social Media report).

The Facebook-owned image-sharing site poses a different health offering, embraced by many health and fitness enthusiasts around the world. By allowing them to share daily doses of visual inspiration (such as mindful quotes, healthy bowls and nutritious ingredients), users can inspire others to follow in their steps.

“I started my Instagram account to raise awareness for a high-carb, low-fat approach for diabetics,” 28-year-old type 1 diabetic Robby Barbaro, from California says.

“I use social media to share the beauty of a low-fat, plant-based diet. I use it to answer questions and dispel a lot of misinformation about fruit and clean starches.”

By uploading photos of fresh produce, artfully displayed in their raw form, Robby (known on Instagram as @mindfuldiabeticrobby) has inspired over 37,000 people around the world, many of whom are diabetes sufferers.

“Before social media, we would have to find people in our local community. Now, it's easy to connect with people from all over the world.”

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