By enabling harmful or helpful behaviors, social media can do bad or good, which is just another way of saying that social media is a tool, morally neutral, whose impacts depend on what we choose to do with it.
One example of social media cutting both ways is in the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. On one hand social media has been identified as a culprit in the spread of STDs because it makes it easier for people seeking casual sexual encounters to hook up with each other. On the other hand, new research suggests that social media can actually help reduce unsafe behavior among high-risk groups.
The study, titled “Social Networking Technologies as an Emerging Tool for HIV Prevention” and published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, focused on 112 men who have sex with men (MSM) who were recruited through online banner ads on social media sites including Facebook and Craigslist, as well as the Web sites of gay community organizations and businesses in Los Angeles. Over half (60%) of the subjects were African-American MSM and 28% were Latino MSM -- both groups with especially high risk for contracting HIV through unprotected sex.
The subjects were then assigned at random to one of two Facebook discussion groups, one focused on general health (as a control group) and the other focused on HIV prevention specifically. Peer leaders helped lead the discussion groups and encouraged subjects to take part, resulting in high engagement rates for both groups; subjects in both groups were also given access to free at-home self-testing kits.
After twelve weeks, the researchers found that participation in the online discussion group about HIV increased rates of HIV testing and also produced major behavioral changes, including more frequent use of condoms. Thus 44% of the participants in the experimental group requested a testing kit, compared to 20% in the control group, and were several times more likely to actually complete the test and send it back in order to receive results.
While this is undoubtedly encouraging, it’s useful to remember the down side to social media as well. Last year I wrote about a report from the Houston Department of Health and Human Services which blamed social media for a rise in syphilis cases in Harris County, by facilitating unsafe sex between MSM. Minority populations are disproportionately affected, with almost 60% of new cases in Harris County involving African-American men, and 23% involving Hispanics.