Social media has become an extremely popular form of communication with an estimated 2 billion active users worldwide. As people increasingly turn to social media as a source for news and information, it becomes a logical vehicle of communication for public health promotion, including sexual health.
So how effective is social media at educating people about sexual health? A scientific literature review of 51 publications on the use of social media to share sexual health information found that it may be an effective means of communication, especially for certain topics. Below are some of the ways in which social media may play a role in improving sexual health, as well as a few warnings about how social media can be misused.
Social media can deliver education on sexual health issues in a manner that is readily accessible.
Since so many people around the world are on social media on a regular basis, it is a convenient way for them to view all types of content. Therefore, when sexual health promotion occurs over social media, people do not have to go out of their way to access this important information.
It can provide a comfortable setting for communication about sensitive topics.
Though sexuality is a natural and important part of the human experience, many people still feel embarrassed or uncomfortable talking about sexual health. Multiple studies have shown that people find social media to be a comfortable way to share and receive information on sexual health, perhaps due to the more private nature of the viewing experience.
It may be a good platform to advocate for changes in behavior that could improve sexual health.
Education about sexual health topics is necessary and important, in part because it can lead to changes in behavior that may improve people’s sexual health. Many of the studies included in this literature review focused on efforts to increase condom use and testing for sexually transmitted diseases (STIs).
One randomized study split participants into two groups: one that was shown a Facebook page on youth health information for two months and one that was shown a Facebook news page for the same period of time. Compared to the control group, the group that was exposed to the health information page was more likely to use condoms at the two-month point (68% for the intervention group versus 56% for the control group) and to use protection more frequently during sex acts (63% intervention versus 57% control). However, this effect wore off about six months after the trial.
Several studies showed that STI testing campaigns promoted through social media resulted in a significant increase in the number of STI tests or the likelihood of STI testing. Sometimes, these studies showed an increase in STIs in an area, but this was due to the increased frequency of testing. Two of the 51 publications analyzed reported significant decreases in chlamydia and gonorrhea after running relevant social media campaigns.
The potential risks of social media promotion.
Even though social media may be a powerful channel for spreading valuable health information, it is not without risks. Unfortunately, due to its high reliance on user-generated content, social media can become a hotbed for false information or “fake news.” It can also become a convenient platform for people to promote unproven or even dangerous products to treat sexual dysfunctions, as well as possibly detrimental practices like jelqing (i.e., manually stretching the penis to try to increase length). Users should be wary of content that seems too good to be true because it probably is.
These studies indicate that social media can be an effective way to educate people about sexual health in a convenient and comfortable forum. It may also even have a positive effect on people’s sexual health practices, at least in the short-term. While these results are encouraging, there is still much more that can be done to determine how to best use social media to improve people’s sexual health and overall quality of life. For example, in the future, it may be worthwhile to leverage social media to share information about other important sexual health topics including contraception and female genital mutilation.