Ronja Holopainen didn’t want to fall down the rabbit hole. But like so much on the internet, it just happened. One day last spring, the 21-year-old medical student was scrolling Instagram when she stumbled into the weird world of period misinformation.
Your journey started simple enough. When she searched Instagram using the hashtags “Period” and “Menstruation,” she quickly came across a deluge of posts promoting unsubstantiated ideas, such as girls’ regulating or predicting their periods based on their astrological signs. Visiting the responsible accounts seemed to fill their feed with even more falsehoods.
“When you get to a page, you scroll to the next and the next and land somewhere on the deep web,” she said.
The loudness of the distortions and inaccuracies shook Holopainen. So she decided to meet her directly. She was well positioned for that. She has been involved in the global girls’ rights organization Plan International for seven years. Bringing her medical and legal experience together, she set up an Instagram page – theperiodmove – to help girls get out of the morass of pseudoscience that many of them have unknowingly gotten into.
On May 1, she published her first post: a pale pink grid describing how misinformation penetrates into discussions about menstruation. “Because of the taboo nature of the period, a lot of misinformation and disinformation is spread,” she wrote. “This can lead to false and even dangerous beliefs.”
It’s no secret that our digital spaces are full of conspiracy theories and fake news. However, new research by Plan International suggests that disinformation takes a heavy toll on young women and girls, exposing them to ideas that threaten their physical well-being, undermine their trust in democratic processes and harm their mental health. The report comes amid a heightened review of social media’s impact on teenagers after a Facebook whistleblower made a series of scathing allegations about the “toxic” effects of Instagram on teenage girls, including worsening eating disorders and thoughts of suicide.
Plan International’s study surveyed more than 26,000 girls in 26 countries about their exposure to disinformation and found that a significant number of girls are harmed by online myths. In the United States, 80% of young women reported that misinformation had a negative impact on their lives, while Brazil and the Philippines reported 91% and 95%, respectively. A third said it harmed their mental health and made them more stressed and anxious, and 20% said their confidence in the election results was compromised.
The report also clearly showed that digital disinformation can influence girls’ choices about their physical health. Around a quarter of young women asked themselves whether they should be vaccinated against the coronavirus. Like Holopainen, they too have faced a significant amount of false health information – one in Brazil recalled coming across a post suggesting that tampons cause cancer.
The deluge of misinformation related to reproductive health has introduced a new breed of influencer to Generation Z: Doctors debunk online misinformation about sexually transmitted diseases, fertility, the human papillomavirus vaccine, birth control, and other reproductive health issues in crisp, bite-sized videos on TikTok and Instagram. But for most doctors, the myth breaking often happens when they meet patients.
U.S.-based medical professionals Trish Hutchison and Melisa Holmes routinely ask a number of social media-driven questions on topics ranging from coronavirus vaccines to infertility. Hutchison, a doctor who works at the College of Charleston in South Carolina, and Holmes, an obstetrician and gynecologist in the state, also run an online sex education center for parents and teens called Girlology. This work has enabled them to see that what young women see on screen often translates directly into their real-world decisions and beliefs.
Falsehoods about menstrual products – like the myth that non-organic tampons get chemicals into girls’ bodies – are rife. However, the most common lies that they patiently refute are that the birth control pill causes infertility or that women regularly need to take breaks from using contraceptives to “cleanse” their bodies. “The only thing that happens when you take a break from birth control is that you have an unwanted pregnancy,” says Holmes.
You also routinely encounter misconceptions about feminine hygiene, largely touted by online vendors of pseudoscientific products that claim to promote vaginal cleanliness. “Vagina self-treatment is huge on Instagram,” Hutchison told me. “I pulled a sprig of lavender out of a vagina a few weeks ago because TikTok was talking about how to clean yourself. Do not do that.”
Some social media channels place great emphasis on self-treatment and diagnosis, which leads them to postpone seeing the doctor until their condition is more advanced than necessary. Holmes pointed out a patient who developed a kidney infection after trying to treat a urinary tract infection with cranberry juice or young women who turned to skin conditions after using DIY remedies to treat fungal infections, one of which they did mistakenly believed.
“There are so many Dr. Google-based self-treatments out there that people later end up getting healthcare from a trusted, licensed provider,” said Holmes. “Someone might think they have a yeast infection and it’s not getting better, and they checked online. They finally come in and have a raging herpes infection and they didn’t realize what it was. We are definitely seeing more misinformation and it affects people more than it used to. “