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Research by Emily Pfender and Marie Devlin showed followers of
many influencers on YouTube may not be hearing the full story about
certain types of birth control.
to social media influencers for advice on a variety of topics is second
nature for many young people. But when it comes to information about
sexual health and certain types of birth control, the message may be
misleading or even harmful, according to a study by two University of
Emily Pfender is a doctoral student in the Department of Communication. She studies health communication with a focus on how social media users consume health, wellness and lifestyle content.
“Young people, especially,
spend so much time on social media, and the big question has always
been, ‘How does it affect our health?’ ” Pfender said.
Unlike famous actors or athletes, social media influencers become
famous by building relationships with their followers. Research has
shown influencers have a powerful impact on their followers’ attitudes
“They develop a level of intimacy with the viewer because they
disclose personal information,” Pfender said. “And that's attractive for
“Their storytelling feels authentic and genuine for a lot of viewers.
They film videos about their birth control experiences sitting on their
bedroom floors. They're in their house cooking, or they're making a
video about getting ready for their day putting makeup on, and they're
sharing a story. It's all very relatable.”
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Pfender and co-investigator Marie Devlin wanted to know what
influencers were saying about sexual health and birth control. They
analyzed the content of 50 YouTube videos of lifestyle and fitness
influencers with at least 20,000 followers posted between December 2019
Their findings, published in the journal Health Communication,
showed nearly three-quarters of the influencers mentioned they had
discontinued hormonal birth control such as oral contraceptive pills and
injectable contraception, as part of a larger wellness trend and a
desire to live a healthy lifestyle.
“They want to be as natural as possible, more in touch with their body, and feel empowered by being natural,” Pfender said.
The researchers also found the videos contained inaccurate or
incomplete information about birth control, which could mislead
followers who perceived them as credible. Vulnerable audiences could
misinterpret the advice and increase their risk of unplanned
For example, 40% of the influencers mentioned switching to
non-hormonal birth control. Of those who did, 30% used digital fertility
tracking technology such as the Daysy app. As a natural family planning
method, the app helps women monitor and record their daily basal body
temperatures to track their ovulation.
However, Daysy may not be a reliable form of birth control. While a study published in the journal Reproductive Health
showed the Daysy tracker to be 99.4 percent effective, the journal
later retracted the article, saying the methodology used to determine
that number was flawed.
“None of [the influencers] talked about that,” Pfender said of the
retraction. “They still kept saying, ‘Yeah, it's 99% effective’ when we
know it's not because the study was retracted.”
Few influencers discussed taking precautions when using non-hormonal birth control.
“Only two people mentioned using condoms,” Pfender said. “If you're
tracking your cycle, they just said, ‘I don't have sex around that
time.’ But we know that tracking cycles isn't 100% effective.”
Pfender continues to monitor social media for other potential sources
of misinformation. She will also continue her research for her
“This study was a content analysis, so it only describes influencer
messaging,” Pfender said. “My dissertation is going to be a study that
tells us how the messages affect people and their behavior. And
basically, we'll be able to determine if these messages do affect the
intention to use different types of birth control or talk to a doctor
about birth control or look for more information on social media about
Article by Stephanie Doroba, photo courtesy of Emily Pfender, illustration by Jeffrey C. Chase
Published March 24, 2023