A new study from the University of California – Los Angeles’ Center for Behavior and Addiction Medicine suggests that men predominantly use the social networking site, Facebook, to learn about HIV prevention and testing.
Moreover, men who liked and participated in specially-created Facebook social media groups were much more likely to not only test themselves for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), such as HIV, but also reach out and encourage other men to do so.
The study, while all inclusive, focused primarily on African American and Latino men in the Los Angeles area whose sexual activities would place them in high-risk or high-incidence contact with HIV, such as gay communities. These groups of men made up 85 percent of the 112-person study group.
By adopting a community peer-led model, a type of psychological model which has been associated with a reduction in unprotected sex and an increase in condom use, researchers found that men were willing to request information about HIV symptoms, testing, and preventative practices.
Other members were placed in a more general ‘healthy living’ Facebook page which covered a variety of topics in addition to sexual health awareness. Additionally, men in the HIV-specific and peer-led group were five times more likely to request testing information and four times as likely to follow through on actually completing the test compared to the more generic Facebook page.
Furthermore, the study found that men from both groups were reporting a reduction in the number of sexual partners as a result of regularly participating on their respective Facebook page communication boards.
This study supports the popular opinion that Facebook and other social media outlets like Twitter, Reddit, and Tumblr are becoming a growing source of information about sexual health. While these social media sites provide information about testing and preventative measures, they are also generating an open platform of communication between at-risk groups who may not have any other resource to turn to or who may feel ashamed to discuss their STD in person.
Because the study currently focuses only on men from the Los Angeles area who engage in high-risk sex or have a high probability of exposure, researchers are unsure if the trend between social media and an increase in STD testing will hold up.
The next “scientific step is replicating this in a bigger group,” Sheana Bull, a supporter of the study, said. This would mean expanding the HIV prevention and testing study to other ethnicities, sexual orientations, and other rates of STD exposure.
Sean Young, the study’s leader, is hopeful that the study will encourage a new approach to sexual health awareness.
“[I am] convinced that this approach will be able to create sustainable behavior changes,” Young said.
The study, published in The Annals of Internal Medicine, is the first to address the link between social media, rates of STD testing, and the use of clinical services for HIV prevention.