Being well online: Health and wellness life writing on YouTube, Instagram and TikTok

Author: Edith Hill

  • Thesis download: available for open access on 28 Mar 2026.

Hill, Edith, 2023 Being well online: Health and wellness life writing on YouTube, Instagram and TikTok, Flinders University, College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences

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‘Being well online: Health and wellness life writing on YouTube, Instagram and TikTok’ explores forms of life writing across social media platforms to create the first study in the field of life writing of health and wellness life writing online. All examples I have chosen came to me through the algorithm on my personal social media accounts. As such, this work not only maps the field of online life narratives of health and wellness, but it mirrors my experience of what it is to be a woman in her mid-twenties living online. This thesis introduces case studies through which to explore different sub-genres of health and illness writing online.

The thesis begins by exploring the history of health and wellness life writing, investigating autopathography, autothanatography, memoir and biography, and unpacks these genres to understand how life writing about health takes place in online spaces. Through the example of Belle Gibson and her infamous terminal cancer scam, I explore how Instagram facilitated this health and wellness hoax. I explore the lasting impacts of hoax for online communities. Through a trending audio on TikTok, I analyse the community building that takes place when groups of people share intimate health information to large public audiences. I show how YouTube channels that record body “transformation” videos give audiences access to a body in different stages, and how women posting intentional weight gain videos are transgressing societal norms.

This thesis is preoccupied with ethical life writing, and consequently seeks to interrogate the representation of sick children on family YouTube channels. This discussion necessarily engages issues such as exploitative and relational life writing, vulnerable subjects and unpacking the nuances of publishing intimate health information about a minor. I go on to examine how health professionals who make reaction videos potentially create collaborative narratives with their video subject complicate this collaborative space and raise questions about the ethics of collaborative health life writing. Researching health and wellness online during a pandemic has posed significant challenges and changes to social media platforms and guidelines. The thesis concludes with a discussion of how COVID-19 has changed the landscape for health writing online, and the potential impact this will have on future online health and wellness life writing. YouTube, TikTok, and Instagram are not only locations where these life narratives take place, but they (and their individual platform affordances) are integral into the structure, content, and distribution of the health and wellness life narrative genre.

Keywords: wellness, health, YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, social media, hoaxes, misinformation, online, life narrative, life writing, autopathography

Subject: Humanities thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2023
School: College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences
Supervisor: Kate Douglas