Getting a sex education from a variety of sources is nothing new for young people, but research shows information being shared by social media influencers may be leading to unplanned pregnancies for some.

In an article published in Health Communication this month, US researchers say influencers on YouTube are encouraging people to stop using hormonal contraception in favour of less reliable methods of birth control like fertility trackers.

The study analysed 50 videos posted by influencers who have between 20,000 and 2.2 million followers. 

The researchers found 74% of these influencers claimed to have stopped using hormonal birth control or were about to.

Approximately 40% of those influencers told followers they were using non-hormonal methods instead, with fertility trackers the most popular alternative.

The study’s lead author, the University of Delaware’s Emily Pfender, says the popularity of fertility trackers is concerning.

“Tracking cycles may not be as effective at preventing pregnancy as hormonal birth control,” she says.

Pfender says influencers don’t mention to their followers the amount of effort and planning that goes into tracking cycles. 

“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.”

She says people also need to track cycle lengths and not have sex on specific days. 

A risky business?

Pfender says stopping hormonal birth control is risky, because it increases the likelihood 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,” she says.

Family Planning’s National Medical Advisor Dr Beth Messenger says the main thing for people to think about when it comes to contraception advice, is that what works for one person may not necessarily work for somebody else.

“[At Family Planning], we ask [people] a range of questions around working out what their needs are and what’s important to them, and what’s actually going to be the best method … for them,” she says.

“Also, we’re able to take the time to make sure that [people] understand how to use their method correctly, because if you don't use that method correctly, it doesn't matter how good it is.

“It's not going to work so well if you're not using it properly.”

The power of influencers

Many young people get their sexual health information from social media.

Previous studies suggest influencers are more persuasive than traditional celebrities in this area because of their accessibility and relatability. 

Pfender says social media can still be a valuable source of information for young people.

“Getting sexual health information from social media gives young adults the opportunity to get peer perspectives and seek out relatable information,” she says.

“It is an especially good way for underrepresented groups such as LGBTQ+ young adults to get tailored sexual health information.”

But she says influencers’ advice around contraception should be treated with caution.

So where should people go for contraception advice?

Messenger says the best thing young New Zealanders can do is find a health provider to talk to. 

She says that could be Family Planning, Youth Health, student nurses, or a GP or nurse at their local medical centre. 

“[They should talk to] somebody who knows about contraception, who's able to ask them the questions around their health and their needs, and you know, what their lifestyle is like. For example, if you’re doing a job where you work shifts, then probably the pill is not going to be the right thing for you,” she says. 

“Then they can use that information and talk about what your options would be.

“They can also provide education around how to use your chosen method so that you’re going to get it to work as effectively as possible for you.”

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