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Should You Trust Online Comments on Health Articles?

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Comment sections on the internet are usually one of two things: a garbage pit of hate and ignorance or a wealth of information and entertainment. Occasionally you get both. These comments, especially those on health articles, can be incredibly persuasive. Perhaps too persuasive, say the authors of a new study published in Health Affairs.

Who hasn't read an article on a hot-button health issue, like vaccines or abortion, and gotten sucked into the comment section? It's natural to want to know what everyone else is thinking and if anyone else feels the same as you do. But simply reading positive or negative comments can shift your perception of the topic, even if you think you're pretty solid in your views.

To test this, researchers took 1,700 people and divided them into three groups: Group one read a neutral article about home birth with a comment section full of positive remarks about the practice; group two read the same piece but with a comment section firmly against home births; group three just read the article with no comments. Participants were asked to share their feelings about home births before and after the experiment by ranking their feelings on a scale from 0 (hate it, it's basically murder) to 100 (best thing ever, I'm giving birth in my bedroom right now).

The researchers found that people who read the positive comments gave an average score of 63 while those who read the negative responses averaged 39. People with no comments were solidly in the middle at 52. The spread got even wider when personal stories and experiences (either positive or negative) were shared in the comments. (Related: The Healthy Girl's Guide to Reading Food Blogs.)

Our propensity to be swayed by internet comments probably isn't a big deal if we're talking about how to wear booties with boyfriend jeans but when it comes to our health, the stakes get a lot higher—something I found out the hard way.

A couple of years ago I was diagnosed with a relatively rare heart condition. (Try The Best Fruits for a Heart-Healthy Diet.) I scoured the internet for information, but the very few articles I found were full of medical jargon or didn't apply to my particular situation. But the comment sections saved me. There I found other young women struggling with the same thing and learned what had worked for them and what hadn't.

Unfortunately, I came to trust their anecdotal experiences over scientific studies and my own doc—they were living it after all, and he wasn't. So I ended up trying an untested herbal supplement I saw recommended in many of the comment sections... and it made my symptoms much, much worse. (Plus, it gave me diarrhea which is exactly what you need when you're having heart problems!) When I finally told my cardiologist what I'd done, he was appalled that I'd tried something just because someone in an internet comment told me to.

I've learned my lesson about taking meds, even herbal ones, without talking to my doctor first. But I refuse to give up reading comments. They make me feel less alone, keep me up to date on new findings or experimental surgeries, and they give me ideas for possible treatments that I can then take to my doctor.

And finding that balance between blind belief and practicality is the key. "This doesn't mean we should shut down comment sections or attempt to suppress personal stories," Holly Witteman, lead author of the study and an assistant professor in the Faculty of Medicine at Université Laval said in the press release. "If sites fail to host such discussions, they are likely to simply happen elsewhere."

She added that even though the quality of comments is sometimes debatable, social media is a valuable tool that allows people to share and find information on subjects related to their health—which is a good thing. What's more, she said that sharing information can be really helpful when there is no consensus on a topic in the scientific community or if a person's choice comes down to their values or personal preferences.

So instead of banning comments or telling people not to give them any credence, Witteman suggests that health sites use comment moderators and make experts available to answer popular questions. When that's not available, talk to you doctor before putting any comments into action.

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