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January 18, 2023

Sexual health misinformation is all over social media, and it can have serious consequences

Many influencers tout ill-advised reasons for halting hormonal contraception – a message that could lead to unintended pregnancies, University of Delaware researchers say

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Sexual health misinformation Sasin Tipchai/Pixabay

Following the sexual health advice of social media influencers can be a dangerous path, researchers say. A new study from the University of Delaware found that contraceptive advice from social media influencers may be putting young people at risk of unplanned pregnancies

Many teenagers feel like they can't talk to their parents or their doctors about their sexual health so they turn to social media for answers. But these sources, however, are not always reliable and can lead to the spread of misinformation and serious health consequences, many experts say.

study by researchers at the University of Delaware, published Sunday, found that contraceptive advice from social media influencers may be putting young people at risk of unplanned pregnancies. Their analysis of 50 popular YouTube videos, posted by influencers with up to 2.2 million followers, found that people were more likely to receive information on halting hormonal contraception than how to have safe sex.

Researchers found that 74% of the influencers said they had discontinued hormonal birth control methods, or planned to discontinue using them, often citing a desire for a more natural way to prevent pregnancy and to improve their mental health. Those that had switched to non-hormonal methods, like fertility tracker apps, cited fewer side effects, natural pregnancy prevention and cost among their reasons. 

But any connection between depression and hormonal contraceptives, like birth control pills, remains unclear, researchers said. And though fertility trackers are popular, they may not be as effective at preventing pregnancies as hormonal birth control methods. 

"Additionally, what young viewers don't see in influencer content is the amount of effort and meticulous planning that goes into tracking cycles," said researcher Emily Pfender. "For example, to use the cycle tracking method as intended, women must faithfully measure basal body temperature and viscosity of cervical fluid at the same time every day, track cycle lengths to calculate their fertile window and refrain from having sex on specific days of their cycle."

Still, social media influencers – people who have amassed larger followings on platforms like YouTube, Instagram and TikTok, and are often supported by lifestyle brands – hold a lot of sway. 

Studies have shown young people are more likely to trust social media influencers than traditional celebrities because of their relatability and accessibility. Social media influencers are more likely to share personal information with their followers, which strengthens the bonds between them.

Though some research has shown that sexual health content on social media can reduce risky sexual behaviors among young people, sexual health experts fret over the dangers of misinformation. The messages shared by influencers aren't always accurate, and may lead to negative health consequences. 

Certain videos, like one instructing people how to make condoms by using a screwdriver and tape, encourage behaviors that increase the risk of pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections – and could possibly lead to injuries, Laurie Mintz, a psychologist, sex therapist and professor at the University of Florida, told Allure in 2021.

"The efficacy of condoms is based on manufactured condoms and not DIY condoms," Mintz said, adding "Projects like this can land people in the ER." 

But the most rampant sexual health misinformation regards menstruation and vaginal health, Trish Hutchison, a physician at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, and Melisa Holmes, an obstetrician-gynecologist in South Carolina, told Coda in 2021. They jointly run an online sexual education hub for parents and teens called Girlology.

Hutchison said misinformation on how to clean one's vagina runs rampant on sites like TikTok and Instagram, noting she once had to remove a lavender sprig from a patient's vagina. Some young women have developed serious health complications after trying to self-treat urinary tract or yeast infections, Holmes added.

A 2021 study by Plan International found that 80% of young American women said misinformation had a negative impact on their physical and mental health. Holmes said she and Hutchison constantly refute social media myths that advise people to taking a break from contraception to "cleanse" their bodies, or that birth control pills cause infertility.

"The only thing that happens when you take a break from birth control is that you have an unintended pregnancy," she told Coda.

The overall message of these experts: teens should not rely solely on social media for information about sexual health and they should treat the advice of influencers with caution. Though social media is a good way to get the perspective of peers and to find more relatable information, health information received on social media – and the sources it comes from – should be vetted.

Though some influencers are board-certified doctors, others claim to be educators or sexual health advocates, but never provide clear qualifications or sources that back up their claims.

To investigate whether information is trustworthy, experts advise researching the claims and the person posting it. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children offers tips on how to spot misinformation and how to report hoaxes, scams or unsafe online challenges.

Experts advise people not to blindly share a video or post without investigating it. It is also a good idea to look at the comments to see if other people have the same questions or concerns. A good rule of thumb is that if a claim seems too wild to be true, it probably is.

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