‘TikTok told me the pill would make me infertile’

Messy explores the misinformation circulating the pill and its side effects.

Memory might be fading from year seven, where putting a condom on a purple plastic penis and being separated into ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ classes  to have your RE teacher talk to you about sex may have seemed, well, excruciating.

Even though now we’re in an age where accurate info can be accessed, the double edged sword of the digital age means that misinformation and rumours still manage to spread like wildfire.

TikTok in particular has shown an enormous amount of users sharing their advice on how to not-get-pregnant, whilst avoiding the supposed nightmare of being on hormonal contraception such as the pill.

Clips under the hashtag “rhythm method” have been viewed almost 1 billion times on TikTok.

Whilst others are relying on menstrual cycle tracking apps,  ‘Clue’, which has 12 million users  and ‘Flo’ as a way of ‘naturally’ avoiding pregnancy. 

Even more so, content creators are using TikTok to share what is often a mostly negative experience on hormonal contraception. 

One said:  ‘‘Getting put on birth control pills at 15 to regulate my periods, only to come off it at 20 and have my doctor tell me it’s made me infertile.’’

Another:  ‘’I would never ever go on the pill, as a medical doctor for women’s’ health.’’    

And another clip shows a slideshow of a woman gaining weight, as the timeline of being on the pill is displayed.  The comments are of shock horror. 

But with more fear mongering online, are those who may be considering hormonal contraception being deterred from accessing what is a crucial reproductive right?

Hear from an expert:

Contraception is a service we need clear and accessible information surrounding, so we asked the experts what they thought about the latest media frenzy.

The Contraception Choices website was created to help anyone who needs contraception between 15-30, access advice and support.

Former GP Julia Bailey, from London, helped create the website which is now recommended by the NHS. 

Julia Bailey said:  ‘‘I think contraception isn’t given much attention. Patients in my clinic are often reluctant to talk about their fears. Or they don’t want to look like an idiot, which is a big factor.’’

‘‘In the media there is a lot of stuff circulating, some of it might be side effects that are quite common, some of it is just not true. Like contraception causing future infertility, it is just not true and it’s really scary. The thought that we would be dishing things out in the clinic that would make people permanently infertile is just a real breach of trust isn’t it?’’

‘‘When I see media criticism of the pill, I get it, but I also go oh no, because what we do see in clinic is more unplanned pregnancies and more requests for abortion”, she says.

Gov.UK released the National Statistic that in 2021 there were 214,256 abortions for women resident in England and Wales, the highest number since the Abortion Act was introduced back in October 1967.

‘‘The packet inserts in contraception have to list everything that is ever reported, even if they don’t know whether it is linked, it could just be a coincidence. It’s not sensible at all”, said Julia.

‘‘There is a lot of general worry about hormones, without really knowing exactly what the worry is. If something is taken, whether it is the pill, the worry is that it is unnatural. Which is interesting, because there’s a question of what is natural anyway? Naturally, I would be getting pregnant once a year. Driving around in a car isn’t natural for example, but we do that anyway.’’

FACT CHECK- what actually is hormonal contraception?

Hormonal contraception is a birth control method which  uses synthetic hormones, mimicking naturally occurring hormones such as progesterone, or oestrogen and progesterone in combination.

By maintaining consistent levels of hormones, ovulation is prevented . The cervical mucus thickens to prevent sperm from entering the womb and fertilising an egg. The lining of the womb is also thinned to lower the chances of a fertilised egg implanting and developing.

Whilst preventing pregnancy, hormonal contraception doesn’t prevent you against  STDs ( sexually transmitted diseases ) or STI’s ( sexually transmitted infections )  like using a condom does.

Dr Julia Bailey added:

‘‘In clinic it takes a long time to go through even three methods, and to properly understand it all. It’s not one size fits all, everyone has different priorities.’’

‘’The benefits of hormonal contraceptives are not spoken about nearly enough. How many pregnancies have been prevented over five or so years if you’re on the implant for example? You don’t know that. It’s often difficult to appreciate the benefits of something you don’t see.’’

‘‘It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that actually two hundred years ago, heterosexual women would be pregnant once a year, and life is not like that anymore.’’

Eden (she/her) , 21, Sheffield has been on the combined contraceptive pill for a year. 

She said: ‘‘I was really scared to go on the pill because of what I’ve seen online and with the side effects on TikTok, like people have got blood clots. But to be honest, I’m more scared of getting pregnant so I’ve gone on the pill and it’s been fine so far.  Every contraceptive method has side effects, doesn’t it?’’

Dr Laura Towler, Southampton University, is a specialist in sexual health research for young adults. She believes that media literacy should be taught in schools, as misinformation surrounding sexual health is increasing.

She said: ‘‘It’s a double edged sword, it’s positive and negative. It’s become really easy for people to disseminate information between each other, you can just make a quick video and it’s up there. Not everyone is going to read your Instagram posts, which might be a lot more curated.’’

‘‘It’s not to say somebody’s personal experience or opinion isn’t relevant at all, but it’s important to take what we see with a pinch of salt.” she says.

‘‘The 0.05% of people worldwide who have these particularly horrible side effects for example, might be the ones putting the videos up, and we’re not seeing the hundreds of thousands of other women on the pill who are not experiencing these side effects.’’

‘‘The problem in this country is that even though we’ve got a national curriculum, it’s still very varied who is giving this information and what we are getting taught, from area to area.’’

‘‘Most teachers aren’t sexual health professionals and perhaps they feel like they are not qualified or confident in giving that information. Also, people can obviously opt their children out of those sessions if they want to.’’

Lauren, (she/her) , 21,  Liverpool didn’t feel she was educated enough on contraception choices : 

‘’Growing up I didn’t know a lot about contraception because my parents were very no sex before marriage. For them, why would you need to be on contraception when the purpose of sex is for having children when you’re married?

My mum fed me a lot of taboos, like that it would make me gain a lot of weight. I have to go on contraception for my PCOS, that’s the way I spoke to her about it, not because I was having sex”, she says.

‘‘I try not to use social media like TikTok at all for my info on contraception, I don’t trust it at all. If I do use socials it’s from creators I think are woke and educated on it.’’

Since Lauren has been on the pill, she has had really positive experience.

Whilst being scared of gaining loads of weight, she didn’t have a lot of bad symptoms. Although, Lauren’s mum will still definitely say the best form of contraception is abstinence.

Dr Lauren Towler added : 

‘’There’s a lot of things we don’t talk about and we tend to focus on the negative effects and the medical effects more than the relational and sexual effects”, she says.

‘‘I think the fact we are talking about it on social media and there’s been programmes like Netflix’s ‘Sex Education’, there’s been some really positive strides. But from every generation people are still feeling that contraception is a difficult thing to talk about openly, with their family for example.’’

The right to choose what we do with our bodies goes hand in hand with being able access to accurate information. Whilst social media is a hub of community, it is vital that we continue to get our sexual health advice from trusted sources.

Even more so, that the voices of experts, our doctors and researchers’,  aren’t silenced out by the buzz of overnight TikTok trends.

For more health pieces from the Messy bunch, click here: Health SOS – Messy (jusmedia.co.uk)

Useful resources:

Contraception – NHS (www.nhs.uk)

The Contraception choices website :

Contraception Choices

Dr Julia Bailey

Julia Bailey Profile | University College London (ucl.ac.uk)

Dr Lauren Towler :

Doctor Lauren Towler | University of Southampton

Read more here

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