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12 Nov 2019 12:22
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  •   Home > News > International

    People are turning to Reddit to work out if they have an STI

    Thousands of people are turning to Reddit to obtain a "crowd diagnosis" for sexually transmitted infections, often posting photos of their symptoms, research has found.

    "Is this herpes?"

    "How did I get chlamydia?"

    "What is wrong with my penis?"

    They sound like the type of questions typically reserved for an awkward conversation with your GP.

    But they're actually a tiny sample of questions people have asked strangers online in the past 48 hours, seeking sexual health advice or a second opinion.

    New research has found thousands of people are turning to online message board Reddit to obtain a "crowd diagnosis" for sexually transmitted infections (STIs), often posting photos of their symptoms.

    Using the internet for health advice is almost as old as the internet itself. But requesting peer feedback is a new way people are accessing health information, especially for stigmatised conditions, said lead researcher Alicia Nobles.

    "It's different from 'Dr Google' because on Google, you're searching from information and ciphering through it yourself and trying to figure out what's relevant," said Dr Nobles, a data scientist at the University of California San Diego.

    "Whereas on Reddit, you're reaching out to people like you, asking them what their experience is."

    The researchers analysed one of Reddit's most popular "subreddits" (topic threads) on sexually transmitted diseases — r/STD — which describes itself as a place to share "stories, concerns and questions" on "anything and everything STD related".

    The subreddit, which has been active almost 10 years, has more than 10,000 members and more than 17,000 posts.

    Drawing a random sample, the researchers found 58 per cent of posts on r/STD were "explicitly requesting a crowd-diagnosis", and among those, 31 per cent included a picture of symptoms.

    The majority of posts received a reply within hours (sometimes minutes), and many were requests for a "second opinion" after receiving a previous diagnosis from a healthcare professional.

    Even so, Dr Nobles said "leaders take it for granted that the public is relying on Dr Google for all of their health concerns".

    Using the internet: the good and the bad

    It goes without saying that relying solely on the advice of a stranger online for medical information is unwise.

    "If people are using [this information] to inform their medical decisions, it could lead to them not receiving the treatment or resources they need," Dr Nobles said.

    A misdiagnosis could result in the continued spread of a disease, and may also have a ripple effect on the people who view the post and perceive they have a similar condition which they then wrongly self-diagnose.

    On the flip side, online discussions about sexual health can help to normalise questions or concerns that often carry stigma or shame, and may encourage people to speak to their doctor.

    Andrea Waling from the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society said online forums gave people the opportunity to engage with people who "understand what [they're] going through" and "can give a bit of peer support".

    "There's a lot research that suggests peer-informed information is really useful and valuable," said Dr Waling, who was not involved in the study.

    Why people are going online

    It's not just the accessibility of the internet that drives people to ask intimate questions to strangers online. There are still many barriers to seeking out face-to-face sexual healthcare, Dr Waling said.

    "If you're a young or an older LGBTI person, you're not likely to want to go to a mainstream provider for fear of homophobia, transphobia or biphobia," she said.

    "If you're from a culturally and linguistically diverse background, there's a concern about racism or discrimination, or cultural barriers — maybe you don't feel you can go to a sexual health service."

    Not knowing where to find help, as well as the shame and stigma associated with STIs are common reasons why people tend to go online, she said.

    "It's just as common as catching a cold or flu. But we still frame STIs in this kind of notion as dirty or unhygienic."

    A national survey of Australian secondary students in 2018 found the internet was among the most common sources of sexual health information for young people.

    "What's interesting is that … even though young people were increasingly using the internet for sexual health information, they didn't trust it all that much," Dr Waling said.

    Bringing healthcare to social media

    The study authors suggested healthcare professionals could partner up with social media outlets to improve the quality of health information online.

    "It is our responsibility to ensure that the thousands or millions seeking out crowd-diagnoses get help," said study co-author John Ayres.

    "By partnering with social media companies, we can combat the spread of misinformation or mis-diagnoses and ensure life-saving help is found."

    Studying crowd-diagnoses and online health forums was also an important tool for healthcare planning, Dr Nobles said.

    "From a research standpoint, we need to understand better how the public interprets this information and how much value they place on it," she said.

    "You never would think that people would be going online and sharing very private information, including images of their private parts.

    "And so, we wonder: what other health issues does this extend to?"

    © 2019 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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