From trying a new workout we spotted on Facebook to jumping on the Instagram celery juice bandwagon, we’ve all probably made health decisions based on our social media feed to some degree.
With the average person now spending over two hours a day on various social media platforms, it’s only natural that the friends and influencers we follow online affect our real-world decisions around our well-being.
But just how much does what we take in through a newsfeed change what we do in real life? And are these effects ultimately beneficial, or do they have unintended negative consequences?
Although research is beginning to unpack these questions, our own experiences also tell the tale.
Here’s a look at some of the surprising ways users say social media has fueled their health — or harmed it — and how to get the most out of your own time online.
Pro vs. con: How does social media showcase health?
The pro: Social media can provide health inspiration
After all, you can hardly scroll through Pinterest without passing by a gorgeous salad or must-try smoothie.
Sometimes, getting images of good-for-you foods in your line of sight provides the oomph you need to opt for veggies at dinner — and feel awesome about it.
“I enjoy finding recipe inspiration from other feeds,” says Instagram user Rachel Fine. “This has helped to expand my knowledge when it comes to food and recipes.”
The posts we see on social media can also boost our motivation towards fitness goals or offer us hope for a healthier future.
“They inspired me to push through my recovery so I too could focus on physical strength,” she says. “They gave me fuel and a goal to work toward, which made the dark times and hard moments in my recovery easier to push through. I saw a reason to succeed. I saw something I could be.”
The con: Social media can foster unrealistic expectations of health
When the images we see online present perfection, we may end up feeling that healthy eating and physical fitness are unattainable, or only for a select few.
“Social media can give the impression that creating ‘perfect meals’ and meal prepping can almost be effortless,” says dietitian Erin Palinski-Wade, RDN. “When it isn’t, users can experience frustration and feel like they aren’t doing it correctly, which can cause them to give up completely.”
Additionally, following diet culture accounts that constantly glorify thinness or make judgements about types of food is stressful.
“Even as someone four years recovered from an eating disorder, I still feel pressure sometimes from the fitness industry on Instagram,” notes Insta user Paige Pichler. She experienced this recently when a social media post overrode her body’s own cues for rest.
“My body was begging for a break, so I came around to the idea of taking a night off from the gym. I saw a workout post on Instagram and was less grounded in my conviction.”
Pro vs. con: How does social media let us talk about health?
The pro: Social media can be a safe space to get support and discuss health
Though the impersonal nature of connecting with others from behind a screen receives criticism, the anonymity of social media actually has its advantages.
When a health condition is too painful or embarrassing to talk about in person, an online forum can provide a safe space. Nekonam says that during her days with anorexia, social media became a lifeline.
“I had shut myself away from my friends and family. I was avoiding social situations because I had a lot of anxiety and shame surrounding my disorder. I turned to social media for contact with the outside world.”
Angie Ebba, who lives with chronic illness says she’s found Facebook groups also offer an environment for like-minded people to share health struggles.
“These groups have given me a place to ask questions about treatment without judgment,” she explains. “It’s nice to follow other chronically ill folks online, as it makes the bad days not feel quite as isolating.”
This type of emotional support could have powerful physical effects, too, since social connection improves overall healthTrusted Source.
The con: Social media can become an echo chamber of negativity.
While this can work for good, that’s not always the case.
If someone you follow focuses solely on the negative aspects of a health condition or if a group only bemoans the difficulties of weight loss, it’s possible your own mental and physical health could be affected or influenced for the worse.