Researchers are always looking for ways to prevent the spread of HIV, and in recent studies the idea of using social media as a way to make an impact has become a more viable solution. It is not just social media that scientists believe will help stop the transmission of the virus. In fact video games, chat rooms and social networking are all areas in which researchers believe prevention can be achieved.
Living in an age of computers, social media and constant access to the internet means that using these tools is the only way for a real concerted effort to be made in controlling the spread of HIV. Two researchers, Eric Rice from USC and Sean Young from UCLA, have been putting this theory to the test. Their belief is that based on their research into using social networking to help with prevention, health agencies have an opportunity that is potentially powerful in engaging young people to stop or limit their negative behaviors, that put them at greater risk for exposure.
In the study it appears that the target of the prevention was the homeless youth living in Los Angeles. For many, use of social networking allows for easier connection with people. This means it is also easier to find sexual partners, which leaves the door open for possible infection. Therefore, it is important to turn social media around, and make it a tool to promote less risky sexual behaviors.
In order to effectively use social media as a tool through which HIV prevention is achieved, it is important to also know how the online social networking technologies are used by young people. This includes being aware of what kinds of conversations they are holding while online, what their history of testing for not only HIV but also other sexually transmitted diseases is and what is their current level of awareness.
While the study did show that using social networking allowed for young people to have an easier time picking up sexual partners, which would lead to more risk of HIV infection, it also showcased that using social media as a tool to spread knowledge, education and awareness actually has the ability to reduce transmission. This knowledge can shift sexual behaviors from those that are risky, to a more self-aware and proactive in regards to protection.
Further studies from Columbia University School of Nursing also indicated that reaching out via chat rooms, video games and other social media can be effective for reaching those young men at a higher risk of HIV exposure. The idea of a social outreach program via social medias is an intervention technique that seems to work. This is due to the fact that health officials are reaching out to the areas in which young people are actively participating. It is the general idea of taking the knowledge to them, rather than having them have to hunt the knowledge down on their own.
Although education initiatives over the last few decades had steadied the increase of HIV transmissions, there is a large audience of individuals who are at a higher risk of infection, young adult males. With this particular demographic being so attuned to using technology, it is imperative for health officials to use this same technology to reach out to them.
These eHealth interventions as they are being called, include a number of initiatives. The study limited the research to men who engaged in sexual activities with other men. The study was done as both a controlled test, as well as a randomized test.
First there was Sexpulse, an interactive website that was designed to reach men who were looking for sexual partners via the internet. This site was deemed to be successful at reducing sexual behavior deemed high risk.
Then there was Keep It Up! (KIU), which was an interface to use with video games. The purpose of KIU was to reduce the rate of unprotected anal sex between men hooking up.
The third initiative was actually a downloadable video game. Although it did not significantly reduce risky sexual behaviors, its design was more along the lines of reducing the shame that some men feel when engaging in sexual activities with other men.
The same study also indicated that using chat rooms can also reduce HIV transmission. An expert would regularly enter the chat rooms and post information regarding testing for HIV. They would also answer any questions directed their way. As the posts continued, self-reporting of HIV testing increased within the chat rooms.
On social media such as Twitter and Facebook, spreading messages of prevention and testing, garners more awareness. Having trusted individuals share information regarding HIV testing, was proven to actually increase the number of requests for test kits. The other thing that researchers noticed was that when those trusted individuals posted any form of educational or informative information, not only did testing increase, but so did the use of condoms, especially in regards to anal sex between partners who meet online.
Although these studies are small, the potential is much bigger. Using social media as a tool through which health officials attempt to spread awareness and prevention of HIV, can be critical to greatly reducing the spread of the disease. New approaches to education and awareness are always needed and with the proliferation of social media, it is the largest tool at the disposal of officials.
By Kimberley Spinney
Photo by flickrolf – Flickr License