As many people search the web for tips on how to get a good night’s sleep and how to manage insomnia, be wary of Dr. YouTube.
That’s the message from Boston researchers who are sounding the alarm on the prevalence of misinformation in highly viewed YouTube videos about sleep health.
A new study from researchers at Brigham and Women’s Hospital has identified an alarming amount of medical misinformation in videos about sleep disorders on YouTube. The researchers found that “popular” videos created by bloggers garnered significantly more views than expert-led videos. Also, the popular videos contained misinformation, while promoting products and services.
“What’s tricky is that so much of health information is very nuanced, and a lot of popular YouTube videos have clickbait and appeal to shorter attention spans,” said lead study author Rebecca Robbins, investigator in the Brigham’s Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders.
“People today often want very bite-sized pieces of information. However, science is fundamentally more nuanced than a one-liner or the 280 characters in a Twitter post,” added Robbins, who’s also an instructor in Medicine at Harvard Medical School.
To conduct the study, the team searched YouTube using key terms such as “insomnia” and “sleep tips” to identify popular YouTube videos on sleep health. They then sorted videos by views and labeled those with the highest number of views as “popular.”
The researchers compared these popular videos to videos from credible sources — which were identified by a YouTube feature that places content from healthcare systems at the top of search results for health-related terms.
The study found that the videos with the highest number of views were most often produced by bloggers (42.9%), followed by medical professionals and health coaches (33.3% and 23.8%, respectively). While popular videos averaged 8.2 million views, those led by experts received only 300,000 views.
None of the expert-led videos contained commercial bias, or the promotion of a product or service, yet 66.7% of popular videos featured such biases. The popular videos had significantly more misinformation.
“Medical misinformation, including what’s found in some videos about sleep disorders, can lead to patients avoiding care or receiving the wrong care and can be detrimental to patient outcomes,” said senior study author Stuart Quan, clinical chief and medical director of the Brigham’s Sleep Disorders Service in the Division of Sleep and Circadian Disorders. “Sleep Medicine is not immune to this issue.”
While the study focused specifically on YouTube, the team hopes to expand the research to include other social media platforms, such as Instagram and TikTok. The researchers also hope that platforms will continue to find creative ways to partner with health professionals to combat misinformation.
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