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Social media could help to cut STIs

Condom use increased after safe sex advice offered via Facebook

Louise Prime

Tuesday, 09 October 2012

Social media could be used to deliver effective messages about safe sex, research has shown. The study, published in the November issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, showed that condom use increased among participants in a programme delivered using Facebook – but only in the short term.

Researchers recruited 1578 young people through community settings, postings on popular blogs and websites, and advertisements in college and local papers in cities with high rates of sexually transmitted infections including HIV. Recruits were also given incentives to enlist three friends in the study.

Participants were assigned to one of two groups. The 18-24 News group, the controls, signed up to share general news of interest to their age group. The intervention Just/Us group signed up to a Facebook community developed to promote sexual health, with daily updated blogs, discussions, quizzes and video links on topics including talking about sexual history, skills building for condom negotiation and use, and how to access STI testing.

Two months into the study, 68% of the Just/Us group said they had used a condom when they most recently had sex, compared with 56% of controls. The Just/Us group said that 63% of their sex acts in the previous 60 days had been protected by a condom, compared with 57% for controls.

The authors said: “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 programmes delivered in real-world settings.”

However, 6 months after the intervention began the differences between the groups had disappeared completely, and the number of active participants had declined.

The authors said: “Although this type of attrition has been documented in other online STI-related research, it underscores the need to redouble efforts to attract and engage higher-risk youth in prevention efforts using social media. Future work should explore approaches to keep audiences engaged in social media content related to sexual health.”

The author of an accompanying commentary said: “For health behaviour change intervention designers, Facebook offers something unprecedented – direct access to an individual’s social network, in real time, and without the need for tedious network enumeration by participants."

He adds: “However, such approaches require multidisciplinary teams that include social media specialists, marketers, and software developers as equal partners in design and intervention development. Building such teams will undoubtedly require changes to traditional funding and development models, but the potential is too large to be ignored or minimised.”

DOI: 10.1016/j.amepre.2012.07.022
DOI: 10.1016/j.amepre.2012.08.001

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