Doctors fear there is a link between social media giant TikTok and Scotland's increasing abortion numbers

Scotland’s record-high abortion numbers could be partially caused by misinformation on social media, doctors have warned

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Misinformation on social media may be contributing to Scotland’s record-high abortion figures, doctors have claimed, with new research showing one in three Scots have seen untrue or misleading information on TikTok.

Public Health Scotland (PHS) recently revealed there were 16,584 abortions last year – an increase of 19 per cent on the previous year – with women living in the least affluent areas having twice as many abortions as those in the most affluent areas, as reported by our sister title The Scotsman.

Dr Babak Ashrafi, a GP specialising in sexual health, said “girls were more likely to act on health-related social media content, making them more vulnerable to misinformation”.

A survey of 2,000 Brits, undertaken by Superdrug, in February found 43 per cent said they had learned more about sexual health from TikTok than they did at school, including 55 per cent of 16 to -24-year-olds.

More than half of this information could be erroneous, the survey suggests, with 59 per cent of respondents saying they had seen untrue or misleading health information on TikTok. One in 10 had actually taken action on advice that turned out to be inaccurate.

The figure was even higher for Scottish respondents, with 65 per cent claiming to have seen untrue or misleading information on the platform.

The study further revealed Scots act on health advice seen online an average of four times a year, either by sharing with friends, researching symptoms or purchasing products. More than 46 per cent of Scots admitted to buying health-related products as a result of social media.

'It's crucial to create a safe and non-judgmental space where young girls can ask questions'

Dr Ashrafi, who worked on the study, said: “We found girls were more likely to act on health-related social media content, making them more vulnerable to misinformation. There is such a taboo around sex among young girls that leads them to believe it’s inappropriate and promiscuous.

“However, sexual education for young girls is a critical aspect of their overall well-being and development. Comprehensive and age-appropriate education should be delivered in a supportive, respectful, and non-judgmental manner.

“It needs to be based on scientifically and medically accurate information so girls feel empowered with the skills and support needed to make informed decisions about their sexual health and relationships.

“It's crucial to create a safe and non-judgmental space where young girls can ask questions and seek clarification without fear of ridicule or embarrassment.”

Scotland’s long-term abortion figures follow an upward trend. In 2013, the termination rate was 11.5 per 1,000 women aged 15 to 44 years. But this has now risen to 16.1 per 1,000 women in 2022.

Socio-economic inequality within the statistics has widened in the past ten years in Scotland – termination rates for those living in the most deprived areas are now more than double that of those living in the least deprived areas.

Ethnic inequalities were also evident in multiple termination rates. Last year 67 per cent of black and Caribbean women self-reported a previous termination, compared to 42 per cent of white women.

Variations exist across NHS boards in the proportion of terminations at less than nine weeks' gestation, from 86 per cent in the Islands, to 64 per cent in NHS Fife.

Women living in more deprived and remote rural areas were less likely to have an early termination compared to women in less deprived areas and in accessible rural and urban areas.

Dr Ashrafi said: “With the support of their structured education, parents should also be encouraged and equipped to participate in their daughters' sexual education journey actively. It’s important for children to feel safe and for parents to feel empowered to initiate and navigate conversations about sex in a supportive and informative manner.’’

'Social media is quickly replacing ‘Dr Google’'

Misinformation doesn’t just affect women either. A similar study into erectile dysfunction revealed concerning knowledge gaps, with more than a third of Brits believing in the misconception that wearing tight boxers can greatly impact sperm quality. In fact, 91 per cent of respondents were unaware that decreased facial hair could be an early sign of a low sperm count.

Dr Ashrafi added: “According to our research, 72 per cent of people in the UK felt their sex education at school was either very basic or poor, and just 11 per cent said what they learned was excellent.

“We need to provide a safe space for our children to learn accurate information, without judgement, about these important topics to prevent the younger generations from turning to social media for ‘reliable’ health information.

“The accessibility of medical information on social media has numerous advantages, but it also presents significant challenges, particularly regarding medical misinformation. I believe it is crucial to address and combat medical misinformation on social media from a well-informed and responsible perspective.”

There is evidence that social media is quickly replacing ‘Dr Google’, amid claims people were more likely to have viewed health advice on social media than they were to have booked a doctor's appointment in the past year.

That could be because 18 per cent said their first port of call for medical information is the internet/social media, and one in five would turn to the internet before looking at official NHS resources for information.

Dr Ashrafi recommended that young people made sure they checked the source of the information they were accessing to help tackle misinformation.

"It should be from credible brands and credible sources like the NHS or a qualified, licensed healthcare professional,” Dr Ashrafi said. "Going directly to these websites will help you avoid following misleading posts on social media.”

TikTok told The Scotsman the platform’s community guidelines made clear it did not allow inaccurate, misleading, or false content that may cause significant harm to individuals or society, regardless of intent.

A TikTok spokesperson said: "TikTok is home to a thriving community of medical professionals, experts, people from underrepresented communities and those wanting to share their personal experiences of contraception and sex education. Our community guidelines make clear that we do not allow harmful medical misinformation and will remove it if found."