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Is social media influencing young people’s contraception choices?

Eliza Bell, Brook’s Media and Communications Coordinator, discusses the potentially harmful effects of misinformation being shared on social media around hormonal contraception and how it can be combatted.   

From our extensive work with young people, we know they are relying on social media more and more for all kinds of information and advice. This is not inherently a bad thing. Social media platforms can be an invaluable source of information on a range of topics, especially when such information or education is not readily available elsewhere. 

Equally, social media can be a space to discover shared experiences and a lifeline for people who are struggling to find community in real life. Last year, we shared a story from Lois, 21, who explained that finding communities online helped them learn about their sexuality and gender identity, and why she thinks social media should be celebrated as a safe space. In 2021, our Digital Intimacies and LGBT+ Youth report published in partnership with University of Sussex showed that LGBT+ young people see online platforms as a vital space for community and celebration. 

For some young people, social media has become a key source of sexual health knowledge, with hashtags like #contraception having nearly 600 million views on TikTok.  

In a recent survey we carried out of young people in Manchester, the highest number of respondents (47%) said the main place they got their information about contraception was from social media and online.  

However, some of the information shared can be misleading and even dangerous. This month, researchers from the University of Delaware published a study in Health Communication that showed influencers were sharing inaccurate and potentially harmful information around the use of hormonal contraception. Influencers were found to be creating content around stopping hormonal contraception in favour of ‘natural’ methods without providing substantiated information about the benefits of doing so.  

The results of the study are alarming, as content like this could lead to more unplanned pregnancies for young people who are influenced to stop contraception without consulting a healthcare professional or having an alternative method in place.

If someone isn’t happy with their current contraceptive method, we’d always recommend visiting a sexual health service or speaking to a GP about what other options there are. 

The #naturalfamilyplanning hashtag now has over 16 million views on TikTok. But these short-form videos rarely represent the amount of education needed to fully understand the method and use it effectively. Without proper teaching about the correct use, there is a much greater risk of unplanned pregnancies when using fertility awareness methods.  

While individuals’ negative experiences with hormonal contraception are not to be dismissed, experiences vary between person-to-person and what does and doesn’t work for one person will not be the same for everyone else. 

This is just one of many examples of why it’s essential that we equip young people with the critical thinking skills needed to discern helpful and reliable information from inaccurate or misleading.  

If you’re a parent, carer, or work with young people, fostering an environment where curiosity is encouraged and questions are welcomed means young people will hopefully feel more able to come to you if they encounter confusing information or want to find out more about a particular topic.

Our RSE at Home videos, hosted by Brook expert educators, were created to support parents and carers on how to continue conversations about relationships and sexual health at home. I also shared more tips specifically on how to support your young person’s mental health on social media in a blog last year. 

There are lots of great accounts providing evidence-based information and advice around sexual health and wellbeing. Brook’s Instagram aims to provide bite-size educational content to young people, and signposts them to our extensive help and advice pages. The desire for this type of information on social media is clear, with our channel currently having over 16,000 followers. 

We must also acknowledge that young people are turning to social media for information around their sexual health because they’re not getting it elsewhere. Despite Relationships and Sex Education becoming mandatory from September 2020 in schools and colleges in England, a report published in 2021 by the Sex Education Forum showed that young people were still not receiving the comprehensive and quality RSE that they were promised.  

Better education around all aspects of sex and relationships, including the types of contraception available, is vital in combatting the myths and misinformation that can be found online.  

Brook is in a unique position of having direct contact with young people in both clinical and education settings, allowing us to gain an insight into the topics that they are currently most interested in or the issues that they are facing. 

Keeping abreast of social media trends is another vital way to do this. By doing so, we are able to make sure our education sessions in schools and trainings for professionals are most useful and relevant in the current climate. 

We also update our young-people-facing digital content accordingly. For example, after noticing the increased interest in natural family methods, we have worked to update and expand our webpage on family planning methods and created a new webpage on debunking some common myths around contraception. We’re also currently developing a new tool to help people better understand the contraceptive options available to them and make a decision on what method would best suits their needs.  

With over 90% of 16-25 year olds having at least one social media platform, we cannot ignore the role it plays in being a source of information and influence.

What we can do is ensure young people have the tools at their disposal to critically analyse content they come across, as well as making sure they have access to comprehensive and unbiased education about sex, relationships and wellbeing.  

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