Curbing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases may be as easy as signing up for a Facebook group.
A new study, conducted by researchers at the University of Colorado and slated be published in the November issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, suggests that the social network can be an effective—if temporary—tool in advocating the usage of condoms and reducing the contraction of STDs among people between the ages of 18 and 24.
The study, entitled “Social Media-Delivered Sexual Health Intervention,” recruited participants by using online and newspaper ads. The first wave of subjects were then asked to recruit three friends into the study, who in turn were also asked to recruit three additional friends.
Once a large enough pool of participants was obtained— 1578 total, with 14% of them Latino and 35% African-American, two ethnic groups with disproportionately high infection rates— they were divided into two groups. 942 people were told to like and join a Facebook group called “Just/Us,” a page that contained useful information about STD prevention and healthy sexual practices. The remaining 636 people were put in a control Facebook page called “18-24 News,” which provided general news about that would interest said demographic.The researchers also collected baseline data pertaining to condom usage beforehand.
After two months, 68 percent of participants in the Just/Us Facebook group reported using a condom during their last sex act. Similarly, the proportion of sex acts where a condom was used in that same period was 63 percent.
In contrast, the control group reported only 56 percent had used a condom in their last sex act, and 57 percent of all sexual acts performed by that group involved condoms.
After 6 months, however, there was minimal disparity in condom usage between the two groups.
Despite the waning effectiveness of the STD prevention Facebook group over time, the scientists in charge of the study aren’t discouraged.
“The use of social media to influence sexual risk behavior in the short term is novel,” writes the paper’s lead author Sheana S. Bull, Ph.D., M.P.H., “ and is an important first step in considering how to reach the overwhelming numbers of youth online and how to maximize approaches to technology based interventions.”
“It may be valuable to consider whether clinics providing sexual health services to youth might benefit from having a presence on Facebook, and whether having such a presence can intensify, supplement, or extend the effıcacy of their own sexual health promotion efforts.”
This isn’t the first time that Facebook’s ability to prevent the spread of STDs has been discussed. In April 2012, researchers discussed the possibility of developing an app that would look at your social network and assess which one of your friends likely had an STD. The problem with such an app, however, is that it would rely on self-reporting—something people don’t do in real life social networks.
Photograph via Wen-Yan King/Flickr