YouTube influencers, birth control advice and the consequences

A new study suggests that influencer messaging about sexual health could be misleading for young people.

YouTube is one platform where health influencers are prevalent. (Photo credit: Getty Images).

TikTok, Instagram, YouTube and other social media platforms are filled with high-profile influencers who dole out beauty tips, kick-start trends and freely share health and wellness advice. But excepting the physician influencers who provide credible health information, plenty of internet celebrities, many of whom lack training or credentials, often knowingly or unknowingly push questionable health content.

study published in the journal Health Communication examined the video libraries of several popular YouTubers who have promoted misleading ways of using contraception and, in the process, prompted worry among public health experts.

Young people get information on just about anything via social media, including sexual health. And influencers are, in some ways, even more powerful than traditional celebrities, holding sway over how young people choose and use products or services.

“Typically, when YouTube influencers speak favorably about a product, viewers are more likely to form positive attitudes toward products because they feel connected to the personality,” the researchers wrote.

A quick YouTube search elicits plenty of clips in which well-viewed influencers describe their personal experiences with hormonal birth control for years and with doing birth control the “natural” way via the monitoring of menstrual cycles.

The study examined YouTube videos published between December 2019 and 2021 that featured influencers talking about their personal experiences using hormonal and non-hormonal birth control. Many of the videos touched on stopping hormonal birth control and many of them conveyed inaccurate information about sexual health.

The study noted that a number of influencers have discussed birth control on their vlogs, sparking debate over whether hormonal birth control and oral contraceptives are safe. That’s in line with a broader trend of women moving away from hormonal birth control, due to worries about side effects, and toward “natural family planning.” The emergence of fertility tracker apps, including Daysy and Natural Cycles, has played a role in the shift.

The study’s major takeaway is that young people looking for advice on birth control may find more content about reasons why they shouldn’t be on it.

“Searching for information on birth control on YouTube does not necessarily yield information about safe sex or using contraception, but about the discontinuation of hormonal birth control,” the researchers wrote.

They concluded that “discontinuation of hormonal birth control is risky because it increases the likelihood of unplanned pregnancy… Thus influencer health messaging could be a problematic source of sex education for young audiences.”

Forty percent of the influencers said they were using or had used non-hormonal birth control, claiming that it helped prevent pregnancy and had fewer side effects. The researchers noted, however, that natural family planning isn’t safe or right for all women. It requires meticulous tracking of basal body temperature and viscosity of cervical fluid at the same time every day, as well as careful monitoring of cycle lengths.

Ultimately, the choice to be on hormonal or non-hormonal birth control should be made with guidance from a medical professional. Influencer messaging, no matter how charming or convincing, should be taken with a grain of salt.

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