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Reddit, an emerging source for information on birth control 

Reddit, the social news and discussion website, has become a valuable forum for public discussions about birth control methods and their side effects, according to a study by researchers at UC Berkeley School of Public Health.

After analyzing more than 105,000 posts from a subreddit focused on “providing a space to discuss birth control methods,” the authors concluded that r/birthcontrol had emerged as a particularly useful space for exchanging views about aspects of contraceptive use that are not well addressed by clinical contraceptive counseling.

They saw publicly available data from Reddit as a rich source of information about people’s contraceptive experiences and needs. While past research had explored health topics using data from Reddit and other social networking sites, discussions of contraception were relatively unexplored.

“The value of real-time, open-access data on contraceptive users’ interests is especially high given the shifting landscape of and increasing constraints on reproductive health care in the U.S.,” the authors wrote.

Dr. Cassondra Marshall, an assistant professor at Berkeley Public Health and senior author of the study, said the investigators sought to fill a gap in knowledge about where people go to learn more and make decisions about birth control. They also wanted to gain a window into which issues birth control-related users say are not well addressed by healthcare providers.

“This confirms other research that people go online to help figure out their birth control challenges,” Marshall said in an interview. She noted that side effects—one of the main reasons that people switch contraception methods—were the focus of 40% of the posts.

“Providers don’t always directly address how patients can manage contraceptive side effects,” Marshall said. “This shows the value of sharing stories. One of the points we observed is that people want to talk about their experiences, like, ‘This is what happened to me when I took X.’”

The proportion of people in the United States using a contraceptive method, the authors wrote, is relatively stable. While the birth control pill is the most commonly used method of contraception, women’s use of long-acting reversible contraceptive methods such as contraceptive implants and intrauterine devices has increased since 2008, while the use of non-pill short-acting methods such as the contraceptive patch and ring has decreased.

For their study, the researchers examined voluntarily shared, unsolicited narratives from a large group of contraceptive users sharing posts on Reddit. They used natural language processing to analyze the large amounts of textual data shared in the Reddit community since the inception of the subreddit r/birthcontrol.

They used a novel approach to collecting and using data from a birth control subreddit in collaboration with Cheng Ren and Anu Manchikanti Gomez, of UC Berkeley School of Social Welfare, and Ndola Prata, of Berkeley Public Health.

“What we did is pretty simple,” said Elizabeth Pleasants, a doctoral candidate at Berkeley Public Health and co-lead author of the study.  “We used flairs, which are essentially content tags on Reddit, to see what people were writing about in their posts. ‘Side Effects!?’ was the most popular flair.”

The second most popular flair, the authors wrote, was the subreddit “MistakeorRisk?” which comprised 22% of the posts.

Pleasants is now working on an analysis of subreddit to examine how people got information and support related to abortion during 2022.

“Because it’s a pseudo-anonymous platform, it facilitates people posting about things they may not post elsewhere online,” she said.

This study was supported by the Wallace Center for Maternal, Child, and Adolescent Health Research at UC Berkeley School of Public Health.