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Researchers enrolled online networks of friends who were randomly assigned to an intervention group or a "control" group.
The 942 participants in the intervention group signed up to "like" and receive news from Just/Us, a Facebook community created to promote sexual health. The site featured weekly discussions about topics such as condom use, talking with partners about sexual history, and how to get tested for sexually transmitted diseases. In addition, there were daily updates in the form of video links, quizzes, blogs and discussion threads.
The 636 people in the control group, called 18-24 News, shared general news of interest to 18- to 24-year-olds.
Two months after taking part in the social networking groups, 68 percent of those in the Just/Us group reported using a condom the last time they had sex, compared with 56 percent of those in the 18-24 News group. The rate of condom use during sex in the previous two months was 63 percent in the Just/Us group and 57 percent in the 18-24 News group, the investigators found.
However, the effects seen in the Just/Us group faded over time and there were no differences between the two groups at the six-month follow-up, according to the report published in the November issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
"The use of social media to influence sexual risk behavior in the short term is novel. It is a first step in considering how to reach the overwhelming numbers of youth online, and how to maximize approaches to technology-based interventions," lead investigator Sheana Bull, of the Colorado School of Public Health's University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, said in a journal news release.
The author of an accompanying commentary, Dr. Nathan Cobb, from the Schroeder Institute for Tobacco Research and Policy Studies at the American Legacy Foundation in Washington D.C., agreed that this use of social media was a step in the right direction. "For health-behavior 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 wrote.
"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 minimized," Cobb added.
-- Robert Preidt
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