Using Social Media to Prevent HIV Transmission
As AIDS research enters its fourth decade, advocates are still seeking new tools to stop the disease and help its victims. With over half of all of Americans over the age of 12 using online social networks, there is no doubt that social media plays an ever increasing role in how the population interacts. There is now mounting evidence that suggests social media has ushered in new ways to communicate with at risk groups.
A number of studies in recent years have began tracking the behavior of gay men and their social media use. In 2008, researchers at the University of Minnesota developed a sexually explicit, interactive gaming and information website called Sexpulse to educate gay men about safer sex and HIV.
The provocative tool came under fire from social conservatives, who compared it to government-supported gay porn and tried to kill its funding. Opponents failed and the data collected from educational game offered insight on how social media is used in gay communities.
What became clear was that traditional public health techniques, such as pamphlets and outreach at gay bars no longer have the desired impact. Online meet-up services such as Adam4Adam.com are available 24/7, and mobile apps like Grindr, which use location tracking, have become the "gaydar" of the digital age. Of roughly 2,700 gay men surveyed by the researchers, less than half had ever attended an HIV seminar in person.
Last month the HIV testing program at the Long Beach Gay & Lesbian Center in Long Beach, California has utilized the power of Grindr to their advantage.
"We have had success recruiting men for testing by having pop-up announcements of our services and hours as well as a banner that can link them directly to our website," Health Director Ismael Morales told EDGE. "If you have Grindr and are within a 15-20 mile radius of The Center, you will get the pop-up. I’ve had a few people visiting the city from L.A. who found out about the services through the advertisement on Grindr. It was kind of neat."
Effective Prevention Message From Facebook’s Just Us Site
Morales said that clients have reported that dating has become easier with the ability to disclose status up front via sites like Facebook, OKCupid and Adam4Adam without the true fear of rejection.
"I have used Facebook to contact clients who have tested HIV-positive through my program. We’ve followed up on care, treatment and overall well-being. I think it’s less intrusive for them to hear from their counselor in a manner that’s friendly and non-clinical," said Morales.
Recently, the November issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine published a study by the Department of Community and Behavioral Health at the Colorado School of Public Health at the University of Colorado. The study tracked sexually transmitted infection (STI) prevention messages delivered by Facebook, and found they can be effective in promoting condom use among young adults in the short term.
Social media may provide a viable alternative to promote safe sex using online networks of friends, the study finds.
"The effect size from the short-term outcomes match or exceed those observed in other Internet interventions, suggesting Facebook for sexual health interventions is at least equally effective as other technology-based mechanisms, and these effects match those observed for more traditional HIV prevention programs delivered in real-world settings," observed lead investigator Sheana S. Bull, PhD.
Results also show success in recruitment of youth of color and youth living in geographic regions with high STI and HIV prevalence, and success in reaching large numbers of people with STI- and HIV-related content through Facebook. There is little evidence that youth actively seek out and engage with organizations on Facebook.
Participants and those they recruited were randomly assigned as a network to either an intervention group or a control group. The intervention group signed up to ’Like’ and receive news from Just/Us, a Facebook community developed to promote sexual health.
Each week a new topic such as communicating about sexual history, skills building for condom negotiation and use and how to access STI testing was discussed on the site, with updates each day from youth facilitators in the form of video links, quizzes, blogs and threaded discussions. The control page was called "18-24 News," and shared news that happened during the hours of 6 p.m. to midnight that was of interest to 18 to 24-year-olds.
Controlling the virus for people who are HIV-positive requires a strict daily regimen of medications. Research into social media has found that text message reminders can help increase adherence to medication.
"I feel that social media outlets such as Twitter have provided a platform for people living with HIV to become mini advocates and interact with others, perhaps from places where they may not have other community," said Avert International CEO Brendan Hanlon, of his experiences with social media and youth.
That type of advocacy is important; often, teenagers and young adults with HIV feel physically well, so they don’t keep up with their medications. That puts them at risk of becoming drug-resistant and makes it more likely they’ll pass the virus to other people.
From reducing stigma to boosting adherence, to fostering conversation in communities that need the support, the new social media platforms appear to be an effective method for increasing HIV prevention education.