‘What is wrong with my penis?’: Thousands of worried adults are posting photos of their genitals on REDDIT to get STIs diagnosed by other users instead of doctors
- Researchers led by the University of California, San Diego, studied the forum
- On the r/STD community they found around 17,000 posts from eight years
- Almost two thirds of these were people asking for ‘crowd-diagnosis’
- And 31 per cent of those contained close-up photos of the person’s genitals
People with sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are using Reddit to try and get diagnosed without having to see a doctor, scientists have warned.
A study found thousands of posts have been submitted to the social media site by people worried about their sexual health.
Many include graphic close-up photos of their genitals, while others give detailed accounts of their sexual history.
The forum studied in the research – r/STD – has more than 10,000 regular visitors and even has ‘trusted contributors’ who can comment on people’s posts without showing any clear medical credentials.
Experts warn these forums may distract people from going to see a real doctor or lead to wrong or delayed diagnoses, putting their future partners at risk.
Experts say people are turning to the online community to help them diagnose concerns about their genitals, which might delay them going to an actual doctor
The r/STD community has more than 10,000 members and there have been more than 17,000 posts since it was formed in late 2010 – researchers found it is becoming more popular
A team of researchers led by the University of California, San Diego, analysed a total of 16,979 posts on the STD forum between 2010 and February 2019.
It has become substantially more popular over the past eight years, with the number of monthly posts rising from fewer than a dozen to up to 500.
The scientists found 58 per cent of all the posts were from people asking for a ‘crowd-diagnosis’.
And almost a third (31 per cent) contained a photograph of the reported symptoms. Some 79 per cent of posts received a reply within a day of of being submitted.
Among post titles at the top of the page today were ‘What is wrong with my penis?’; ‘Is the dermatologist wrong?’ and ‘Is this herpes?’.
Many are accompanied by photographs claiming to be of the posters’ genitals, with some showing obvious signs of sexually transmitted skin infections.
Writing in their paper the researchers, led by Dr John Ayers, said: ‘Although crowd-diagnoses have the benefits of relative anonymity, rapid response, and multiple opinions, the underlying accuracy of crowd-diagnoses is unknown…
‘Responders may be operating with limited information about the patient, and responders may lack medical training.
‘Misdiagnosis could allow ongoing disease transmission, and others viewing a post may wrongly self-diagnose their own conditions.’
Experts at British sexual health charity the Terrence Higgins Trust said online advice was useful but not a substitute for real medical help.
And people should not choose to go online out of embarrassment, they added.
Some 58 per cent of all posts on the r/STD community were from people who wanted a ‘crowd-diagnosis’ from other users on the social media site, researchers said
While some users share photographs of their genitals, others go into detail about their sexual history and ask for advice from fellow users
Clinical director at the charity, Liz Porter, told MailOnline: ‘The staff [at sexual health services] are all trained professionals who provide a non-judgmental service.
‘I’ve worked in sexual health for years and I can assure you we’ve seen it all before.
‘The internet has been brilliant for making health information more accessible… but for correctly diagnosing STIs the internet is no substitute for a trained professional who can give a proper diagnosis and proper treatment.
‘Rates of some STIs are soaring – including syphilis and gonorrhoea – and successful treatment is vital for stopping the spread, which is why it’s important to get that diagnosis as quickly as possible.’
Reddit is a completely anonymous form of social media which allows people to – in most cases – post without anyone ever knowing their true identity.
They can even create one-off ‘throwaway’ accounts to make posts or comments which can’t be linked back to their past activity.
In the r/STD forum, at least one commenter was flagged as a ‘trusted contributor’, although it was not clear whether they were a qualified medic.
Many people posting on the forum were looking for second opinions after going to a real medical professional, the scientists noticed
At least one commenter was listed as a ‘trusted contributor’ on the STD community, although they did not have any clearly visible medical credentials
The top rated post of all time is one containing an incredibly graphic close-up of a vagina with a herpes lesion on it, accompanied by basic facts about the infection. The user who posted it said other information and pictures online were ‘totally unhelpful’
The researchers who did the study were concerned that users second-guessing doctors’ opinions might not get treated as quickly as they should be.
And delays to treatment could make them more likely to spread the infections to other people.
But they also acknowledged that forums like this could have doctors taking part to help people get more accurate help more quickly.
They added: ‘Health care professionals could partner with social media outlets to promote the potential benefits of crowd-diagnosis while suppressing potential harms, for example by having trained professionals respond to posts to better diagnose and make referrals to health care centers.’
The research was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).
MailOnline has contacted Reddit for comment.
DATING APPS BLAMED FOR SOARING STI RATES
Clinics in the UK are ‘struggling’ to cope with soaring numbers of STIs because dating apps are encouraging casual sex, experts have warned warned.
Cases of syphilis rose by half in Wales between 2016 and 2017, and record numbers of over-65s are getting syphilis, gonorrhoea and chlamydia in England, figures have shown.
Experts and doctors in the field have warned the fast turnaround of partners and rise in casual sex fuelled by online dating apps may be making catching an STI more likely.
And they also make it more difficult to contact past partners, who may not have mutual friends.
Dr Olwen Williams, president of the British Association of Sexual Health and HIV told the BBC in October: ‘The frequency of app hook-ups and dating apps used as a sort of medium to access sexual activity seems to have increased significantly.
‘What we can say about sexual mixing and sexual networking is that things have changed considerably.
‘We’re seeing a genuine rise in STIs. If we were just seeing an increase in testing then our figures would look slightly different, but it feels that way.
‘Certainly in my career I’ve never seen so much gonorrhoea or syphilis in my area, ever.’
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