Social media and oral health

22 January 2021
3 min read

Michael Sultan considers the power online platforms have over behaviours.

We live in a world fuelled by social media. Indeed, even though we may consider some of the better-known platforms a bit passé, there’s no denying that giants such as Facebook, YouTube and Instagram are still hugely influential and widely consumed by the masses.

It’s been estimated that there were over 3.6bn active social media users around the world in 2020 – an enormous figure that is projected to keep growing as accessibility to smartphones and internet services improve. So, with such a big audience, it makes sense that social media has become a way for people to share their opinions and recommendations. But how has social media affected dentistry?

The good
It’s always good to start with the positives, and in some respects social media has transformed dentistry for the better for both patients and professionals. From a professional perspective, social media has really helped to strengthen the sense of community at the heart of the industry, and it’s easier than ever to connect to likeminded individuals who share your interests and who work in the same spheres as you do. Facebook groups have become an essential part of keeping up to date with some of the latest developments and for sharing opinions. Instagram has also had a positive impact for many professionals, especially those who do cosmetic work and can entice new patients by showing off their work.

Social media has also become a solid way of keeping in touch with companies in the industry and finding out their latest product releases, enjoying special offers and more. Following these companies on social media not only gives you instant
insight into any new developments but often the most novel products and pieces of technology are announced on social media before a show or in traditional media, giving you the chance to stay ahead of the curve.

Of course, the benefits of social media for patients are huge as well. Not only can individuals now keep up to date with their dental practice simply by checking its Facebook page, but social media has also opened the doors in terms of information, allowing patients to make more informed decisions. People can now seek out dentists and practices on social media channels and gauge the services on offer. Plus, online reviews on these platforms can also help them formulate an opinion and choose establishments that will cater directly to their needs.

The bad
Unfortunately, social media does come with downsides too. Perhaps the most prevalent of these in regards to dentistry is that misinformation spreads very quickly across such platforms, often with potentially dangerous consequences.

I was recently reading an article about how some individuals are now using TikTok to promote extremely dangerous oral health trends. In this article, it not only revealed that people had been using pure bleach to brush their teeth, but also that some influencers were going as far as using nail files to grind down their teeth in order to correct any uneven surfaces.

You don’t have to be a genius to see that these sorts of “hacks” are extremely dangerous. There’s a reason that tooth-whitening must be performed by professionals instead of just using the same Domestos that you use to clean your bathroom sink. The very act of grinding down teeth with nail files is another recipe for sensitivity, damage and disaster.

What’s worse is that these people have incredible reach on these platforms and can easily influence hundreds of people to imitate them, especially if they have “proven” in these videos that their hacks work. This means that as these trends continue, we’re likely to see a rise in scenarios where patients come in needing corrective treatment after replicating something dangerous from social media. But what can we do?

Knowledge is power
At the end of the day, the most powerful tool dental professionals have in their armamentarium is the ability to impart science-based knowledge. The truth will always overpower a lie, and social media fads need to be nipped in the bud where possible. Speak to patients and warn them against these dangers, especially if they are considering something like tooth-whitening which many people believe is a lot more straight-forward than it actually is. Use your own social media channels, practice websites and mailing lists to spread real information and ensure that people have access to the resources they need.

Like many things, social media has a good and a bad side. By properly harnessing the benefits of social media and keeping your patients informed, you can help ensure that individuals stay safe from some of the more dangerous aspects of these platforms.

References available on request.