Social media influencers give inaccurate, possibly harmful sexual health advice

January 20, 2023

2 minutes read


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Social media influencers who offered sexual health advice often provided unreliable information, highlighting the need for teenagers to critically evaluate the information they receive online, according to researchers.

Many young people get information about sexual health from social media, often from influencers or microcelebrities who have many followers. Since previous research has found that social media influencers have “powerful persuasive effects on attitudes and behaviors,” Emily J. Pfender, MA, a PhD student and instructor in the department of communication at the University of Delaware, and M.Marie Devlin, an MA student in the department of communication at the University of Delaware, wrote that it is important to assess how influencers convey sexual health information about topics like birth control.

The AMA advised the FDA to make birth control pills OTC drugs instead of prescription.  Source: Adobe Stock

Social media influencers who offered sexual health advice often provided unreliable information, highlighting the need for teenagers to critically evaluate the information they receive online, according to researchers. Source: Adobe Stock

“Getting sexual health information from social media gives young adults the opportunity to get peer perspectives and seek out relatable information,” Pfender said in a press release. “It is an especially good way for underrepresented groups such as LGBTQ+ young adults to get tailored sexual health information. It is important, however, that young people critically evaluate the health information they receive on social media and the source of the information. They should be skeptical of taking a one-size-fits-all approach to health based on the information we find online.”

The researchers used framing theory to analyze influencers’ characteristics and shared experiences when it comes to birth control. They evaluated the content of 50 YouTube video blogs, or vlogs, posted from December 2019 to December 2021 in which influencers — who were often married and childfree with an average of 376,916 subscribers — discussed their experiences with both hormonal and non-hormonal birth control.

The researchers wrote that they chose vlogs “because they are more likely than other video genres to be associated with the presence of self-disclosure and thus rich with detail.”

They found that the majority of influencers talked about hormonal birth control use — 92% — and discontinuing use — 74%. Notably, 86% did not discuss switching to another hormonal birth control.

Pfender said in the release that discontinuing hormonal birth control can be risky because it increases the chances of unplanned pregnancy.

“Influencers’ videos that discourage the use of a highly effective option for birth control and fail to encourage using other forms of protection to prevent against pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections are a public health issue,” Pfender said.

The main reasons the influencers cited for discontinuation were:

  1. being more natural (44%);
  2. mental health (32%);
  3. weight gain (20%);
  4. cycle irregularities (10%); and
  5. headaches (8%).

Just 40% of influencers used non-hormonal birth control, but of those, 30% — 15 total videos — used cycle tracking.

Pfender said that the popularity of fertility trackers is of concern, and the information is possibly harmful, noting that “tracking cycles may not be as effective at preventing pregnancy as hormonal birth control.”

“Additionally, what young viewers don’t see in influencer content is the amount of effort and meticulous planning that goes into tracking cycles,” Pfender said. “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 cycles.

Pfender and Devlin concluded that the potentially inaccurate educational information is particularly concerning “given that social media is young adults’ primary tool for sexual health information,” and that future research is necessary to better understand how influencers’ birth control content affects sexual health behaviors.

“The ways in which influencers talk about health behaviors is important as it has the power to shape attitudes and behaviors outside of traditional medical contexts,” they wrote.

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