Misleading Health-Related Information Promoted Through Video-Based Social Media: Anorexia on YouTube

Shabbir Syed-Abdul
Luis Fernandez-Luque
Wen-Shan Jian
Yu-Chuan Li
Steven Crain
Min-Huei Hsu
Yao-Chin Wang
Dorjsuren Khandregzen
Enkhzaya Chuluunbaatar
Phung Anh Nguyen


Introduction: The amount of information being uploaded onto social video platforms, such as YouTube, Vimeo, and Veoh, continues to spiral, making it increasingly difficult to discern reliable health information from misleading content. There are thousands of YouTube videos promoting misleading information about anorexia (eg, anorexia as a healthy lifestyle). Objective: The aim of this study was to investigate anorexia-related misinformation disseminated through YouTube videos. Methods: We retrieved YouTube videos related to anorexia using the keywords anorexia, anorexia nervosa, proana, and thinspo on October 10, 2011.Three doctors reviewed 140 videos with approximately 11 hours of video content, classifying them as informative, pro-anorexia, or others. By informative we mean content describing the health consequences of anorexia and advice on how to recover from it; by pro-anorexia we mean videos promoting anorexia as a fashion, a source of beauty, and that share tips and methods for becoming and remaining anorexic. The 40 most-viewed videos (20 informative and 20 pro-anorexia videos) were assessed to gauge viewer behavior. Results: The interrater agreement of classification was moderate (Fleiss’ kappa=0.5), with 29.3% (n=41) being rated as pro-anorexia, 55.7% (n=78) as informative, and 15.0% (n=21) as others. Pro-anorexia videos were favored 3 times more than informative videos (odds ratio [OR] 3.3, 95% CI 3.3-3.4, P<.001). Conclusions: Pro-anorexia information was identified in 29.3% of anorexia-related videos. Pro-anorexia videos are less common than informative videos; however, in proportional terms, pro-anorexia content is more highly favored and rated by its viewers. Efforts should focus on raising awareness, particularly among teenagers, about the trustworthiness of online information about beauty and healthy lifestyles. Health authorities producing videos to combat anorexia should consider involving celebrities and models to reach a wider audience. More research is needed to study the characteristics of pro-anorexia videos in order to develop algorithms that will automatically detect and filter those videos before they become popular.