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Pregnancy and social media: When influencers affect health decisions

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Social media communication can be both helpful and risky during pregnancy.

I watched one of the Fyre Festival documentaries a couple weeks ago. It was fascinating to look at how the hype around the disastrous event was largely driven by social media posts from a group of supermodels.

The models posted photos and content on social media to encourage people to sign up for a luxurious music festival on a private island. This is an example of influencer marketing – when celebrities or social media leaders are tapped to promote an event, service, or product.

But that wasn’t clear to the people who purchased tickets; the posts suggested these celebrities were honestly excited for Fyre Festival. The reality was that rather than a once-in-a-lifetime festival, patrons were faced with sleeping in tents, using portable toilets, and eating cold cheese sandwiches.

This might seem unrelated to pregnancy and health care, but these issues with transparency actually hit close to home. The rapid growth of social media is both exciting and frightening. Doctors have a tried-and-true way to connect patients with helpful, medically verified information from basically anywhere in the world. But meanwhile, nonmedical organizations that are strictly for-profit are using Instagram and Facebook influencers to sell products that are not clinically proven and might be harmful to pregnant women.

“I watched one of the Fyre Festival documentaries a couple weeks ago. It was fascinating to look at how the hype around the disastrous event was largely driven by social media posts from a group of supermodels. The models posted photos and content on social media to encourage people to sign up for a luxurious music festival on a private island. This is an example of influencer marketing – when celebrities or social media leaders are tapped to promote an event, service, or product.”

Robyn Horsager-Boehrer, M.D.

Instagram and pregnancy devices

In the U.S., half of Instagram users are age 18 to 29 – the prime window for pregnancy. A 2018 study found that 90 percent of adults 18 to 24 are likely to engage on social media or trust health information found on social platforms. Pregnant women rely heavily on advice from family and friends. When false or misleading medical information is served socially, the ramifications can range from frustrating to dangerous.

A February 2019 article on Vox.com calls out Instagram influencers – in this case, mommy bloggers with large numbers of followers – who are being paid to promote a contraction-monitoring device. The device is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration, though the Vox journalist asserts that the wording one of the bloggers uses – “world’s first clinically validated wearable contraction monitor” – opens the door for misinterpretation of the intended use and safety of the device.

My main concern is that these devices might not be the best way to monitor a patient’s condition. But patients can’t determine that from an Instagram post, particularly when virtual rapport has already been established with the influencer. If a woman had luck with a lotion or potion the influencer previously promoted, she might be less inclined to be skeptical about trying a device.

Pregnancy requires personalized care

Pregnancy is not a one-size-fits-all medical condition. Every woman’s health needs are unique, and it’s risky to blanket-market uterine monitoring devices and similar products. Women at high-risk for preterm labor or other pregnancy complications likely will receive different results from these devices, encouraging them to seek care when it is not needed – or worse, not seek care when she or her baby are in distress.

Another consideration is that just because a product is “new” or “advanced” does not mean it is better than existing devices or treatments. Existing treatments often come with the benefits of an extensive history of safety and efficacy – and frequently at a much lower price.

Finally, women should be aware that when influencers promote products, the influencers don’t necessarily use them personally. To them, the product might be simply a ware to be sold – not a lifestyle, wellness, or health necessity as their posts proclaim.

3 recommendations about influencers

1. Have frank conversations with your care providers.

If you are thinking about trying a product you saw on social media, talk it over with your care provider. We can validate the choice, provide more effective or less expensive alternatives, or let you know whether the option is potentially harmful.

2. Click through provided links. 

Take the time to click through all the links provided by the influencer to get as much information as possible about risks. These links might also tell you whether the influencer was paid to promote a certain product or opinion. Then, conduct your own research outside social media and with a doctor’s guidance to find all the facts you can before trying a product.

3. Ask the influencer directly about paid promotion.

Many influencers accept public comments or direct messaging. If so, ask whether the influencer is being paid to post about the product and whether he or she uses it in real life. Also, look for #ad or #sponsored within their post, which can indicate that the content is a paid promotion. Remember, silence can speak volumes, and some influencers will not be honest in their answers.

Social media merged with pregnancy care is a double-edged sword. Communication is nearly limitless, and disseminating content has never been slicker. This can be a very good thing for patient care. But, it’s also pretty easy for snake oil vendors to take advantage of women who just want the best for their babies.

If you want to try a new device you’ve seen advertised online, come talk to us first. We won’t judge you – we’ll give you the facts. Our goal is to help you achieve a safe, healthy pregnancy.

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