Teaching your child media literacy in the age of false claims and fake news on Instagram

Instagram is one of the fastest-growing social media platforms among teenagers and young adults. Many people spend at least an hour each day scrolling through their Instagram feed. This is a challenge for parents, since Instagram is full of false claims and fake news about health and wellness. It is a veritable hotbed of diet culture and bizarre and dangerous eating fads.

The celery juice fad

The latest food fad to hit Instagram is the celery juice fad. Yes, that bland, bitter vegetable that many of us crunched to trick our bodies into thinking we were eating nourishing food when we were starving on a diet, is back. But this time celery has been fully updated for the Instagram wellness circuit. Now it must be juiced and drunk in the morning to help you achieve almost every health goal known to our society.

Lose weight! Better digestion! Detox! Better Skin! Lower blood pressure! Reverse heart disease! Improve thyroid function! The claims about celery juice are almost endless, and not a single one of them carries any medical or scientific evidence.

The trend was started by an Instagram influencer who has zero medical, scientific, or nutrition training. He just “feels” things, and he “feels” that celery juice is a wonder-drug. His feelings, unfortunately, have taken over Instagram news feeds and have spilled over into online and print news media.

The celery juice trend is not innately dangerous. It is absurdly over-priced ($7 for celery juice) and doesn’t taste very good, but it is unlikely that our kids will get sick by drinking celery juice. The real concern is the speed at which unfounded claims can be developed and spread via Instagram and are quickly believed by hundreds of thousands of people.

The dangers of health fads

This is why media literacy is critically important for our children. Health fads may seem harmless, but our kids are consuming them at increasingly alarming rates. Our culture of assigning moral judgement to food – celery juice is “good” and carbs are “bad” – is creating massive problems for our children at a critical time in their physical and emotional development.

Falling prey to fad food trends may seem harmless, but each time our kids jump on another bandwagon, they become less connected with their innate appetite and food preferences. Each time they are told that they are putting their health at risk unless they follow any number of rules promoted by “wellness” gurus on Instagram, they lose faith in their own bodies.

Media literacy is critical in this time of food and body wars, because our kids are being constantly bombarded with information that is misleading and false. The confusion caused by this information can encourage our children to restrict foods they love and ban foods that are actually good for their bodies out of fear of doing something wrong according to “wellness culture.”

It’s not just weight loss

Instagram is full of before-and-after images and direct weight loss promotions. Every other wellness post mentions weight loss as a “surprise benefit” of eating a certain way.

But intentional weight loss is actually worse for the body than staying the same weight due to the tremendous stress that weight loss puts on the body and the inevitable weight cycling that occurs following weight loss. And intentional weight loss led to eating disorders in 25% of girls in one study.

Read more about the problems with intentional weight loss.

But we don’t just need to worry about weight loss on Instagram. We need to worry about all the food fads, including celery juices, cleanses, detox teas, nutritional supplements, appetite supressants, and more.

All of these trends lack scientific evidence and can even cause harm. They can definitely support eating disorders by supporting the idea that the body must be controlled, hacked, tweaked, and optimized by external factors. These trends directly discount the idea that a person can intuitively listen to their body and find health without going to any extremes or building an identity around how and what they eat.

Media literacy

Media literacy is a critical skill that we must teach our children in a world in which it is increasingly easy to access false claims and “fake news.” The human brain is primed to accept and believe attractive messages, especially when they are delivered in a friendly setting like social media.

Media literacy is the ability to identify different types of media and understand the messages they’re sending. It requires media consumers to carefully evaluate media messages and not take them for granted as fact.

Here are some guidelines for teaching your kids media literacy:

  • Ask questions. Teach your children to ask questions of all claims. What information was included? What information wasn’t included? Who says this is true? How substantial is the scientific evidence of this claim? Is there a company, industry, or person who will profit off me believing this information? How does this information fit with information I already know?
  • Spot magical thinking. We have a strong trend right now to see magical claims of a single product accomplishing a laundry list of solutions. For example, celery juice is attributed to better digestion, weight loss, lower blood pressure, better thyroid function, better skin, fight infections, increasing blood flow … and sooo many more claims. It is very unlikely that a single food item can accomplish these things all by itself. Furthermore, how is it possible that we have made it this far without ever recognizing the magical properties of celery juice? And why does it have to be juiced, not whole?
  • Look for point of view. We all have a point of view. Many of us don’t realize that when we’re consuming media, we are consuming a single person’s point of view. Identify the writer’s point of view and consider how it influences their claim. For example, an Instagram influencer is heavily motivated to gain followers and likes. Many of the most successful influencers make money by companies that want to reach their followers. This means that we must always weigh what they say against their need to be followed, liked, and paid.
  • Understand the goal. Media is created to influence the way we think about things. Consider what the person who created the media wants to influence. What is their goal? Are they trying to get you to buy something? Do something? Change something? Hint: anyone who writes anything is trying to influence. That’s not wrong. But it’s naïve to consume media without considering the goals of the person presenting it.
  • Be suspicious of testimonials. Testimonials are the favorite marketing technique in the weight loss and wellness arenas. Companies use testimonials as a way to make claims that are not backed up by any data. This is because a testimonial is a first-person account of a single experience using a product or technique, and therefore it is not judged in the same way that a company statement is. Testimonials are incredibly powerful and have built the $65 billion weight loss industry. Companies cannot provide good data to support their programs, but they can (and do) use testimonials liberally to convince consumers of their efficacy. Media literacy requires approaching any first-person testimonials with extreme caution. If claims are made via testimonial, they should be considered highly prejudiced, especially if there is no scientifically valid data to support one person’s (or even hundreds of individual people’s) experience.
  • Be a rebel. Many parents fear their children’s rebellion, but when it comes to media literacy, a little rebellion can go a long way. Teach them that just because an Instagrammer has 5 million followers that does not mean they need to do what they say. Our children should be encouraged to make informed choices about what they believe, not follow blindly in someone’s footsteps just because they are popular. Support your child in not following the trends and finding their confidence in being themselves.

There is very little we can do to control false and misleading messages on Instagram and similar social media platforms, but that doesn’t make us powerless. Talking to our kids (constantly) about media literacy can help them become more critical consumers of media and hopefully help them start to spot false and misleading wellness claims.

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