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Influencers are asked to help stop the spread of mental health misinformation

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

By now, many people know that using social media too often can affect your mental health. Some people are concerned about too much social media so they look for information on social media. Some professors at Harvard recognized this and want to flood social media with evidence-based research. Andrea Muraskin reports.

ANDREA MURASKIN, BYLINE: Kate Speer, age 36, knows the world of influencers well. For five years, she was the CEO of a social media company called The Dogist.

KATE SPEER: So we did a whole slew of influencer marketing campaigns, you know, for the sake of dogs or dog food.

MURASKIN: At the same time, Speer was building her own following around something really different - frank conversations about severe mental illness. She lives with PTSD and ADHD.

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SPEER: A little midday reminder for those of us battling our minds. We are still here. We are still here, and the work we are doing just in existing...

MURASKIN: The talent manager she worked with at her day job noticed Speer's appeal and said they could market her if she was willing to tone it down. Focus on mental health, not mental illness. Speer took a pass, but last year, she attracted attention from a surprising place - Harvard. Along with other mental health influencers, Speer participated in online trainings on topics like the mind-body connection and intergenerational trauma provided by faculty at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health. It was part of a research project to see if the academics could influence the influencers to post more science-based content on TikTok. Amanda Yarnell is with Harvard's Chan School.

AMANDA YARNELL: We wanted to talk more about mental health, one of the biggest public health crises of our time. People want to feel seen. They want to feel like people understand them. And that rawness, that authenticity that is driving social right now I think is the right match.

MURASKIN: So how did Harvard influence Speer? She says getting trained in how to interpret scientific research has helped with her content. Last fall, she produced a series of videos about anxiety called "Fear Camp."

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SPEER: So before we dive into exposure therapy and basically kicking anxiety's [expletive], whoop whoop, we must first identify what anxiety is and how it manifests.

MURASKIN: She framed the videos as lessons and gave simple homework, like writing down the physical sensations and thoughts that come up when you feel anxious. Speer also teamed up with a Harvard behavioral science professor on a political action campaign to ban the sale of over-the-counter weight loss supplements to teens in New York.

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SPEER: I've tried a variety of weight loss supplements. I'm not proud of it.

MURASKIN: Speer encouraged her followers to take action. Many did, and the bill became a state law. Bryn Austin is a Harvard professor who worked with Speer on the weight loss supplement campaign. She says it's important for research institutions to invest in influencers.

BRYN AUSTIN: When influencers can only survive by taking money from predatory companies to put disinformation out, that's bad for public health, and that's bad for society. We need to be able to create an opportunity for them to make a living, use their gifts for storytelling and communication, but for good.

MURASKIN: Speer has also been recruited by Dartmouth and the University of Vermont to work on a grant-funded project. These academic partnerships aren't quite paying the bills yet.

SPEER: The work I do is what feeds my soul. My husband would like it to pay our mortgage, but that's OK. We'll get there.

MURASKIN: Considering how far she's come, Speer says to live a purposeful life is its own reward.

For NPR News, I'm Andrea Muraskin in Boston.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Andrea Muraskin manages the social media and website for Sound Medicine News, and contributes web and radio reporting. Prior to joining the Sound Medicine News team, she was a freelance reporter and producer, notably creating the radio feature series’ The Neighborhood Project, The Life Stories Project, and Constitution Indiana at 90.1 WFYI. Andrea was a radio coach for the Indianapolis-based youth media organization Y-Press, where she had the privilege of working with some of the world’s best teen journalists.