April 4, 2012
Leading researchers are looking at how Facebook and other social networking sites can play a role in STD prevention.
At a recent conference, Peter Leone of the University of North Carolina's Center for Infectious Diseases discussed how a person's circle of friends and sex partners can be a strong predictor of STD risk. He cited an example from a syphilis outbreak in North Carolina: "When we looked at the networks we could connect many of the cases to sexual encounters, and when we asked who they hung out with, who they knew, we could connect 80 percent of the cases."
"People think that you have to be directly connected to someone, and I think of it as a population-level effect," said Leone. "It would be no different from someone who goes to a picnic and gets food poisoning. We're concerned about everyone that was at that picnic."
According to Sean Young, a Division of Infectious Disease researcher at the University of California (UC)-Los Angeles, social networking sites are currently most useful as information portals and for generating conversations about risk and testing. This normalization and destigmatizing is exactly the aim of the "Get Yourself Tested" campaign, which calls on young people to get tested and check in on Foursquare while at their local clinic.
"There is good evidence that [in terms of sexual behavior] we're influenced by seeing what our friends are doing," said James Fowler, professor of medical genetics at UC-San Diego and author of "Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives." But it takes "real, deep close social contact for people to change their behavior."