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Sex Health Blog

Facebook and Sexual Health

Dec 31, 2012

 

When you think of Facebook, what comes to mind? Staying in touch with family and friends? Playing games like ChefVille or SongPop? Searching for that long-lost high school sweetheart? Keeping up with your favorite brands and products?

Even if you don’t use Facebook, it’s hard to deny its power. And with one billion monthly active users as of October 2012, it’s not surprising that companies and organizations would try to harness this power to get their messages out.

How about health information? Many major health organizations use Facebook pages to share news and interact with users. SexHealthMatters.org has a Facebook page, too, where we post three times a week. (If you haven’t seen it yet, we invite you to check it out here.)

Recently, researchers led by Sheana S. Bull, PhD, MPH of the University of Colorado, took this question further, investigating whether messages about sexually-transmitted infections (STIs) delivered via Facebook might help prevent risky sexual behaviors. Today, we’ll look at this study in more detail.

The study was published online in October in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

The study

Dr. Bull and her team designed a study involving two Facebook pages. Each page offered content that users could opt into by clicking a “like” button.

The first page, called Just/Us, focused on sexual health messages targeted to young adults. These messages took the forms of video links, quizzes, links to blog posts, and discussions on the page. New topics were introduced each week and the page was updated daily. Topics included discussing one’s sexual history, negotiating condom use, and being tested for STIs. For example, here is a post from January 31, 2011:

Is there a relationship between virginity pledges and abstinence only sex education? Studies show that people who take virginity pledges are equally likely to engage in premarital sex, and LESS likely to use safer sex methods than their non-pledging peers!

The other page was a comparison page called 18-24 News and featured items of interest to young adults, but did not focus on sexual health. For example, a post on January 31, 2011 featured a news video about WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange.

The results

The research team recruited 1,578 participants between the ages of 16 and 25.  Each participant had a Facebook account.  Fourteen percent of the participants were Latino and 35% were African-American. 

942 participants were assigned to the Just/Us page, while 636 were assigned to the 18-24 News page.

At two- and six-month follow-ups, the participants were asked about their condom use.

At two months, 68% of the Just/Us participants said they had used a condom the last time they had sex. Among the 18-24 News group participants, 56% reported using a condom.

Also at this point, the rate of condom use during the previous 60 days was 63% for the Just/Us group and 57% for the 18-24 News group.

This was a great start. However, at the six-month follow up, there were no differences between the two groups for either question.

It is unclear why the numbers evened out, though Dr. Bull noted that over time, the number of active participants decreased. “Future work should explore approaches to keep audiences engaged in social media content related to sexual health,” the authors wrote.

The future

So how could this information be used in the future?

“The use of social media to influence sexual risk behavior in the short term is novel, 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,” the University of Colorado team wrote.

What do you think? Could health messages on Facebook get you to change your behavior? Do you think you would stick with that change? Do you think this approach would be effective only with younger populations? Why do you think participants dropped out? What could clinics or organizations do to retain users for the long term?

Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Resources

AllFacebook

Lafferty, Justin

“Facebook Usage Can Curb Spread of Sexually Transmitted Infections”

(Full-text. October 9, 2012)

http://allfacebook.com/facebook-usage-safe-sex_b101696

The American Journal of Preventive Medicine

Bull, Sheana S., PhD, et al.

“Social Media-Delivered Sexual Health Intervention: A Cluster Randomized Controlled Trial”

(Full-text. October 9, 2012)

http://www.ajpmonline.org/webfiles/images/journals/amepre/AMEPRE_3533[3]-stamped.pdf

Cobb, Nathan K., MD and Amanda L. Graham, PhD

“Health Behavior Interventions in the Age of Facebook”

(October 9, 2012)

http://www.ajpmonline.org/webfiles/images/journals/amepre/AMEPRE_3559-stamped.pdf

“‘Like this Page’ to Prevent Sexually Transmitted Infections”

(Press release. October 9, 2012)

http://www.ajpmonline.org/webfiles/images/journals/amepre/AJPM%20Nov12%20Bull%20Social-Media%20FINAL.pdf

Facebook

“18-24 News”

(Page. Accessed November 6, 2012)

https://www.facebook.com/pages/18-24-News/119993594708014

“Just/Us”

(Page. Accessed November 6, 2012)

https://www.facebook.com/justusisis

“Key Facts”

(2012)

http://newsroom.fb.com/Key-Facts

HealthDay via MedlinePlus

Preidt, Robert

“Social Media Could Boost Condom Use, Study Suggests”

(October 11, 2012)

http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/news/fullstory_130168.html