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When you feel something is off in your body, you might automatically turn to Google to figure out what the hell is going on. Are you sick? Are you having side effects? Should you call your primary care doctor?

The answers to these questions––and more––are often available with just a few clicks online. In fact, millions of people receive healthcare services online via telehealth every day. And others are even connecting with their healthcare providers through social media.

While there’s a lot of good information and general wellness that can come from digital connection, the Internet also upholds significant public health challenges. And Facebook, the world's largest social media platform, is where a lot of health information--including misinformation--is passed around.

In a time when the world is still facing a global pandemic and people are more isolated than ever, is Facebook helpful or hurtful to women’s health?

Misinformation mayhem

On one hand, it’s clear that misinformation on Facebook about the Covid-19 pandemic has been hurtful to public health, particularly when it comes to mask wearing and vaccination.

The anti-vaccination movement, or anti-vaxx, is not new––it’s actually been brewing for several years. Private Facebook groups with individuals waxing and waning about false dangers of vaccines have convinced many parents and other caregivers that they don’t need to vaccinate their children against deadly diseases. Some Facebook groups encourage parents to try alternative treatments that have no effect. A huge downturn in vaccination rates in some regions has actually led to a resurgence of once eradicated diseases, such as the measles outbreak among children in Washington state in 2019.

With the Covid-19 vaccines, Facebook groups again contributed to misinformation and falsehoods about safety and efficacy. One falsehood peddled across social media and shared millions of time was that the vaccines caused reproductive issues, even if a woman was simply standing next to a vaccinated person. This claim was, of course, a big, fat lie. Unfortunately, big tech companies, including Facebook, have failed to crack down on the spread of misinformation in a major way, despite numerous promises.

Together, across Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter, anti-vaxx activists “reach more than 59 million followers, being drip-fed disinformation daily,” according to a report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), a not-for-profit NGO that seeks to disrupt the architecture of online hate and misinformation. Worse, 65% of all misinformation on Covid-19 vaccines came from just 12 influential people online, which CCDH dubbed the “Disinformation Dozen.” Among these characters is Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., a famous anti-vaxxer, environmental lawyer and member of the Kennedy family.

“Despite numerous policy violations by these individuals, Facebook and Twitter have yet to take action against the majority of the Disinformation Dozen,” the report read.

And there’s a reason Facebook is so good at spreading misinformation: it’s designed that way.

“Disinformation is really successful on social media platforms like Facebook because it is often designed to be shocking, graphic and engaging,” Imran Ahmed, CEO of CCDH, told The Whipp. “Our own research has shown that Instagram's algorithm, which is designed to increase engagement and advertisement revenues, directed followers of wellness influencers to Covid and vaccine misinformation for just these reasons.”

Healing tool

On the flip side, Facebook also offers a place for people to connect about their health status. For those who feel isolated or even confused by their health diagnosis, connecting with others online who are going through the same experience can be a huge relief.

One example of the powerful side of Facebook is a group of women who have connected over being diagnosed with breast cancer. Marianne Sarcich, a breast cancer survivor and advocate who founded a Facebook breast cancer peer support group in January 2018, says that connecting with other survivors and patients is an aid for emotional healing. Emotional support is a huge care gap that can be partially filled online through community, she said.

“A breast cancer diagnosis can be so isolating, so those connections are like gold,” Sarcich told The Whipp. “And those connections let the person know that they are not alone in their response to whatever their breast cancer experience is. Thinking that you are the only one feeling a certain way is fairly typical. When the reality is, they probably are one of many. I consider my breast cancer group my tribe and my family.”

Sarcich, who works part-time teaching school children about life in the 1800s at a Delaware museum, says that Facebook groups can actually be mines of information for rare cancers. Her group, In This Together Philly/Wilmington, includes more than 900 regional members who connect about their breast cancer experience and help each other.

However, Sarcich also has run into misinformation about alternative treatments online that have no effect.

“Unfortunately too many people decide to follow the advice from a post in the group and replace their FDA approved treatments with one of these alternative treatments,” Sarcich told The Whipp. “The stakes are so high. And as you can imagine, this doesn't end well. It's so understandable why they make their choice. Some people just want that hope and they were willing to do anything.”

While Facebook holds many untruths on health information, it’s also a place of solace for people dealing with a health status to connect––and even find some truth through the experience of others. Whether that’s learning from others how to become your own health advocate, getting referred to an expert through a Facebook friend or just having someone to talk to about a diagnosis, Facebook groups are filling a care gap in a positive way.

Despite the impact of connection, the danger of Facebook’s ability to spread misinformation like wildfire is still rampant. And it remains to be seen whether Facebook has the gall to actually crack down on health information. The social media giant has added some measures over time in an attempt to flag sketchy sources of information, but the actions don’t go far enough if misinformation is still available on the platform.

“The most obvious consequence of platforms failing to remove misinformation when it is reported to them is that it continues to circulate and gain traction, making it even harder to address at a later point,” Ahmed told The Whipp. “But it also has a second and more insidious impact: research has shown that labels can fool users into thinking that unlabelled content has been checked and left up, so it's reliable. So failing to act on misinformation when it's reported not only leaves it free to circulate further, it can actually create a false impression that it is true.”

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Put down those sodas and coffee shop concoctions, and chug water, ladies.

Drinking two or more sugary drinks daily doubles a woman’s risk of developing early-onset bowel cancer under the age of 50, according to new research. This is added bad news for soda and sugary-drink loving women, who are also at increased risk of Diabetes, obesity, as well as heart disease and stroke with just one sugary drink per day.

The risk of colorectal cancer increases with age, but an uptick in diagnoses among women under 50 has researchers sounding the public health alarm bells and questioning the cause of the rise. The increase in colorectal cancer cases caused the average age of diagnosis to decline from 72 to 66 years of age.

“Colorectal cancer in younger adults remains relatively rare, but the fact that the rates have been increasing over the past three decades—and we don’t understand why—is a major public health concern and a priority in cancer prevention,” head researcher Tin Cao, ScD, MPH, associate professor of surgery and associate professor of medicine at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, said in a statement.

The researchers surveyed more than 116,000 female nurses every four years over two and a half decades for their study. A 16% increased risk of early-onset (cancer diagnosed before age 50) colorectal cancer was found for each 8-oz serving of a sugary drink per day. And during adolescent and young adult years (ages 13-18), each daily serving of an 8-oz sugary drink was associated with a 32% increased risk of developing early-onset colorectal cancer.

Only 109 diagnoses of early-onset colorectal cancer were found among the 116,000 female nurses. And while Cao’s results reveal only a small number of colorectal cases, she said there is an association between sugar intake early in life and early onset colorectal cancer risk.

While many people wait until age 50 to get checked for colon cancer, the American Cancer Society recently updated its recommendations for people with average risk to get screened at age 45. There have been a variety of methods to combat the grip sugary drinks have on various age groups including excise tax on sodas and school-based health promotion.

“Given this data, we recommend that people avoid sugar-sweetened beverages and instead choose drinks like milk and coffee without sweeteners,” Cao said.

The study was published in Gut.

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A new reason for religious organizations to assign women to leadership positions—female worshippers in places that do not allow women in leadership positions have worse health outcomes.

In fact, organizations that leave out women from opportunities such as preaching impacts women’s health because of the systematic gender inequality within institutions. Women who attend more inclusive organizations self-reported better health than women who attend less inclusive or sexist organizations, according to new and first-of-its-kind research from Florida State University (FSU).

Previous studies associate participation in religious activities to positive health outcomes, but many religious institutions create and reinforce “structural sexism,” according to co-authors Patricia Homan, PhD, assistant professor of sociology, and Amy Burdette, PhD, professor of sociology at FSU.

The researchers compared the health status of the respondents to the type of religious institution––sexist or inclusive––they attended, and found women in inclusive institutions had an average self-reported health score higher than that of women in sexist institutions. Men were not affected by structural sexism in a religious setting.

“We found that women experience a health benefit from religious participation—relative to non-participants—only when they attend religious institutions that are gender inclusive and allow women to hold meaningful leadership roles within the congregation,” Homan said in a statement. “Women who attend sexist congregations have the same health as those who do not attend religious services at all and have worse health than women who attend inclusive churches. These results suggest that the health benefits of religious participation do not extend to groups that are systematically excluded from power and status within their religious institutions.”

Data for the study was collected from two sources—the General Social Survey, which collects demographic information and data on religion and health status, and the National Congregations Survey, which gathers information on religious congregations.

The General Social Survey asked respondents to rate their health status on a scale of 1 to 4, with 1 being “poor” and 4 being “excellent.” As part of the National Congregations Survey, the researchers reviewed respondents’ answers if women could teach a co-ed class, if women could preach at the primary worship service, if women could serve on the institution’s governing board and if they could be the institution’s main leader. If two or more questions were answered in the negative, the congregation was labeled as sexist. At least three questions had to be answered in the affirmative to be labeled as inclusive.

Of the respondents:

  • 59% said they belong to congregations that prohibit women from being the institution’s main leader.

  • 14% said they belong to congregations that prohibit women from serving on the leadership or governing board.

The study was published in American Sociological Review.