BLOG: Health on Facebook: Engaging critical minds

BLOG: Health on Facebook: Engaging critical minds

18th Jun 15

by Stephanie Jong, Flinders University


Social networking sites such as Facebook have become a widespread leisure activity for young Australian people. Although it can be considered a sedentary activity as it is the same behaviour as watching television, social networking sites have a bearing on other leisure time, for example physical activity. Through the development of social networking sites, online fitness communities have become a popular way for people to source health information, specifically relating to diet and exercise. With current trending hash-tags* such as ‘clean-eating’, ‘IIFYM’ (if it fits your macros), ‘paleo’, ‘flexible dieting’, as well as ‘fitspo’ (fitness inspiration) and ‘squat challenge’, the information received is often overwhelming, confusing, and at times, incorrect. The results of my study of 22 Australian young female participants indicated that the girls consumed the health and fitness information they found within the online fitness community and implemented this in to their everyday lives. 

The results of my research challenge some of the media reported negative views of online fitness culture as these girls found the online fitness community a positive, inspiring and motivating experience. However, negatives related to self-esteem and body image were noted. Another concern related to health literacy – where the girls were unable to differentiate between the credibility of the health advice offered. This is a real problem with other research finding 66% of young people trusting the information found online, and modifying their behaviour because of it. 

It has been noted that adolescents find it difficult to evaluate the accuracy of the information they find online. As adolescents turn to online trusted brands to justify credibility, participants in this study based credibility on looks, personality, amount of followers (popularity) and the number of pictures visible on their account. While at times some participants were able to distinguish facts versus opinions when looking at online health information, it was evident that most participants did not review authorship, endorsements or sponsorships to assess credibility.

Challenges faced with critical health-related media literacy could have detrimental effects on the health and wellbeing of users of social networking sites. The inability to understand, analyse and evaluate health information found on social networking sites could pose damaging effects when applying this information to people’s own lives. It is important to empower users by developing skills in conducting analysis and evaluation of the quality of health information found online. 

Taking in to account the Australian Curriculum, Health and Physical Education has been designed to be future-focused with the emphasis on applying skills and information, rather than focused on content. The results of the study draw on two of the five propositions of the curriculum: developing health literacy and including a critical approach. 

A primary focus here is on the three dimensions of health literacy (functional, interactive and critical).  Some suggested ideas to promote this are:

  • Create a curriculum where students explore eHealth literacy (an online component of health literacy) skills in relation to their most commonly used sources (e.g. social networking sites). This will allow learning to occur in a practical environment where students can gain a real-world application developing holistic student health and wellbeing. For example, teach health literacy through TV food ads (see for lesson ideas or for a Healthy Living unit workbook from a study conducted by the University of Queensland); 
  • Explicit teaching of Internet search strategies and critical evaluation of websites is imperative (McCuaig, Carroll, & Macdonald, 2014);
  • Ensure that teaching health literacy skills is an ongoing approach, not only specific to one topic, but throughout the course of learning.

Social networking sites can foster motivation for healthy living and provide relevant and up-to-date health information. Young people can also inspire one another with stories and images of transformation through social networking sites. Health educators can build on the enthusiasm of social networking site users and guide them to improve the way they evaluate health information they find online. 


*A ‘hash-tag’ is a word or words, prefixed with a # symbol which when typed in to the search tool on the social networking site, acts like a Google search and will find a pool of comments, pictures and posts which have used this hash-tag. This is continuously updated.



McCuaig, L., Carroll, K., & Macdonald, D. (2014). Enacting critical health literacy in the Australian secondary school curriculum: the possibilities posed by e-health. Asia-Pacific Journal of Health, Sport and Physical Education, 5(3), 217-231. doi: 10.1080/18377122.2014.940809


Stephanie Jong is a health and physical education teacher who is currently a PhD candidate at Flinders University. Her research looks at online fitness culture on Facebook and Instagram and the effects on young female’s health practices such as dieting and exercise. 

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