Social Media is the New Sexual Health Teacher
Scrolling through social media has become a nighttime tradition. As I lie in bed and browse the video-based app TikTok, I am plunged into a digital mosaic of content. A home cook making banana bread. Swipe up. A group of friends doing the latest TikTok dance trend. Swipe up. An OB/GYN discussing the difference between a Copper IUD and a Hormonal IUD. Swipe up.
As a result, social media itself has evolved. While “selfie-culture” and personal branding are still prevalent on social media, these platforms have become more nuanced and have made room for transparent discourse, education, and activism. A 2018 Pew Research survey saw that 65% of Americans think social media can highlight important issues that may not otherwise get enough attention. The stage has been set for previously under-discussed topics like birth control.
This is crucial because contraception education is highly variable. About 1 in 4 millennials did not receive sex education in school, and of those who did 37% said that these classes were not helpful when it came to decision-making. The demand for contraception education does not stop after graduation. Birth control is an ongoing healthcare journey. 60% of women ages 15 to 44 use at least one birth control method, and often switch between brands and methods. Many young women are given static information for a very dynamic healthcare topic.
As women continue to embrace visual-based apps like TikTok and Instagram for education, they are highlighting the unique benefits of social media that make it a worthy contender to fill the information gap around birth control.
UNFETTERED ACCESS TO EDUCATION
Social media provides a unique healthcare opportunity- unfettered access to content. This is especially valuable because many young people do not have a primary care provider. An Accenture study saw that only 55% of GenZ and 64% of millennials had a primary care provider, a substantial shift compared to the 84% of baby boomers. Without trusted health care professionals to answer contraception questions, individuals are turning to the one universally accessible tool: the Internet.
In the current healthcare landscape, the onus is often placed on the individual to navigate the health system to seek answers. As a patient, you are left to be your own advocate. But social media strives to subvert this expectation and openly invite opportunities to learn.
Contraception education can be found in three distinct ways on social media:
1. Initiated education. Individuals can search for particular topics that interest them using hashtags like #birthcontrol or #nuvaring.
2. “Opt-in” for content. Women can follow an educational account on social media and continuously receive updates on their main feed.
3. Passive Viewing: Content is accessed by pure happenstance. Women can find educational content when scrolling on the “explore” section of social media.
Often, individuals are doing all three. This multi-tiered model from active to passive education encourages learning through repetition, which is beneficial in absorbing new facts. Social media promotes the quick dissemination and retention of information.
The value of social media in contraception care is also demonstrated by its teachers. Social media serves to mitigate the existing trust gap that individuals have with their doctors. A study reported that out of 2,000 millennials surveyed, only 58% trust their doctor. Transitioning the role of a physician from authoritative and institution-based to warm and individualistic resonates with viewers online. The power is also placed on the viewer to choose healthcare creators that connect with them. Individuals can now “pick” their digital care provider.
From a scary void of uncertainty to a safe community, the sentiments around social media are changing. In fact, younger generations are likely to view the Internet as an alternative to a doctor’s office for non-urgent matters. When seeking reliable sexual health information, millennials ranked doctors (45% of millennials), friends (44%), and the Internet (43%) as knowledgeable. Social media has become the digital doctor’s office.
The community culture of social media has also forged new paths for building trust online. One of the biggest benefits of social media is that it provides a platform for relationship building and candid storytelling. This is seen firsthand in a TikTok video of a woman undergoing an IUD insertion for the first time. Her video, which has 140k views online, was met with comments like “I know it hurts at first but it is so worth it” and “Can you do an update on how you feel after?”. Viewing personal accounts of a birth control experience, as well as seeing positive affirmations in response, can help foster trust and acceptance. Both of which are sorely needed when dealing with sensitive topics.
Learning from peers not only provides comfort but also makes women feel less alone in their birth control journey. Hearing about birth control experiences from women who have comparable stories, such as similar medical conditions or lifestyles, removes any barriers or “gatekeeping” to contraception education. Personal connection is powerful. People who feel represented are more empowered to play an active role in learning about their birth control options.
Peer-based learning also highlights the value of differing perspectives, especially around side effects. A 2015 study saw that 45% of women ranked side effects as one of their top considerations for continuing a birth control method. Side effects can vary by individual, method, or brand of birth control. Hearing diverse accounts of birth control experiences and side effects can play a pivotal role in the treatment decision-making process.
The popularity of social media groups around birth control is indicative of a wider migration to online communities. And as young people continue to develop an appetite for virtual bonding, there is an opportunity to create robust communities around Women’s Health topics. Young people can benefit from a digital support system.
NORMALIZING THE CONVERSATION
Birth control has historically been framed as a taboo topic. The conversation around birth control education has two very conflicting messages: the health and safety benefits versus the social stigma. This paradox is dangerous. Many women are embarrassed or uncomfortable to discuss contraception at all.
Social media has become a haven for individuals seeking judgment-free information. As more and more healthcare providers and women are sharing their raw and candid stories, they are normalizing the conversation around birth control.
These platforms place control in the hands of their viewers. Viewers can be as engaged as they want, from passively watching educational content, to “liking” and commenting on a video, to sharing the video with their peers. For delicate topics like birth control, where there can still be some fear or uneasiness, women can slowly immerse themselves in content at their own comfort level.
Social media is also formatted to promote levity. TikTok videos are roughly 16 seconds and lean heavily into dancing, music, and humor. This serves as the perfect formula to bring mirth and buoyancy into the conversation. Having an OB/GYN do a silly dance on the screen while explaining the difference between progestin-only and combination birth control pills makes the topic far less intimidating.
Social media has provocatively shifted the paradigm that has historically provided barriers for information and open dialogue. Stigma-free birth control education has gone viral.
Social media has proved to be a valuable asset to further the dialogue around birth control. The rapid adoption of social media as an educational tool speaks to the growing demand for Women’s Health topics to be represented online.
To further the conversation around Women’s Health, communities that foster collaboration and innovation are vital. The Women’s Health Tech Initiative embraces change and funds novel ideas that can make a lasting impact like Bloomer Tech, INFIUSS, and Presque, who were all finalists at the last Women’s Health Tech Challenge in May 2020.