Social media: An opportunity for HIV prevention

Social media is a relatively new type of online communication in which users engage with one another via the development of online communities, through which they can create and share information and ideas. Some common websites that have been integral to the growth and popularity of social media include MySpace,

Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. However, the meteoric rise of social media in today’s society is largely attributed to Facebook, which now has close to one billion active users just nine years after it was founded. In fact, the rise of social media has been so great that Internet users now spend more time on social-media sites than any other type of website, according to a Nielsen report from 2012.

The rise of social media has undoubtedly had widespread effects on society, and its impact has yet to be completely elucidated. For example, social media has been cited as a factor in the rise of some negative outcomes, including cyber bullying, online stalking and privacy infringement. However, many have also noted positive effects of social media, such as the ability for thousands of people to interact and share information in ways that were never before available, with some even crediting social media with the democratization of the Internet.

One positive role of social media that has recently gained attention is the impact of social-media sites on facilitating HIV prevention. Prior to the rise of social media, researchers knew that the majority of online HIV-prevention campaigns focused predominantly on Caucasian participants, despite the fact that the majority of HIV risk in the United States fell on African-American and Latino populations. However, subsequent research has demonstrated that there are no ethnic differences in social-media use, thus supporting social media as venue for sending HIV-prevention messages to previously unreached and underserved populations.

One of the earliest studies to investigate the role of social media was initiated in 2005, just one year after Facebook was founded. These authors investigated the efficacy of social media as a venue for peer-led HIV-prevention programs among African-American and Latino men who have sex with men (MSM) in Los Angeles. In the study, peer leaders were randomly assigned to deliver either HIV-specific or general health information to participants via Facebook over a period of 12 weeks. At the end of follow-up, the authors found that more men in the intervention group (HIV-specific information) compared to control group (general health information) requested home HIV-testing kits during the study, suggesting that Facebook may be an effective method of increasing HIV-testing rates among this population. Unfortunately, no studies to date have followed participants long term to determine the effect of these online social-media interventions in reducing risk behaviors and preventing HIV transmission.

In another study focusing on homeless youth in Los Angeles, mixed results found both positive and negative correlates of social-media use. For instance, online social-media use, even for discussions about safe sex, was associated with increased chances of meeting a recent sex partner online. However, it was also found that social-media usage among this group, when utilized specifically to discuss love and safe sex, was associated with having more knowledge on HIV/STI prevention, a positive outcome. Finally, the authors found that simply being a member of an online social network was associated with having been previously tested for STIs among this group of homeless youth. Another recent study found that participants voluntarily used Facebook to discuss a range of HIV-prevention topics, including testing, knowledge, stigma and advocacy.

It is clear that much work still needs to be done to understand the true relationship between social media and HIV. However, there is promising evidence that social media can be effectively leveraged as a tool through which large-scale, low-cost HIV-prevention efforts can be implemented, with the additional hope that these social-media interventions can reach the most at-risk groups who may have been missed by other efforts.

Lisa Bevilacqua is a former ActionAIDS volunteer, both as a Dining Out for Life Ambassador and as an ActionAIDS Buddy. She graduated from Duke University in 2010 and formerly worked in clinical research at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. She is now in medical school and hopes to pursue a career in Addiction Medicine.


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