Health/Fitness » HIV/AIDS

Facebook Peer Groups Help Educate About HIV

by Winnie McCroy
EDGE Editor
Tuesday Sep 10, 2013

A new study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine suggests that groups on the social networking site Facebook may actually be helping educate men about HIV prevention and testing, including at-home HIV testing.

The study is "really demonstrating a way to take what we already know to be effective... and translating it into the digital realm," Sheana Bull, professor and chair of the Department of Community and Behavioral Health at the Colorado School of Public Health in Denver, told Reuters. "I think it does have a lot of potential and a lot of promise."

Researchers at the David Geffen School of Medicine at University of California-Los Angeles reached out to Latino and Black men who have sex with men (MSM) and helped them to become peer leaders of Facebook groups that focused on HIV prevention and general health information. They found that specially created Facebook social media groups helped encourage MSM to reach out for information about testing themselves at home for HIV.

"We wanted to look at if can we use what we know about behavioral science and behavior change and integrate it with technologies that exist," said study leader Sean Young from the University of California, Los Angeles Center for Behavior and Addiction Medicine.

In the past, the community peer-leader model has been associated with increased condom use and fewer reports of unprotected sex. Those behavior changes have been found to last up to three years.

Young and his team recruited 112 men who have sex with men from the Los Angeles area between September 2010 and February 2011. Of those, over 85 percent were African-American or Latino. These men have a high incidence of HIV, the researchers write in the Annals of Internal Medicine. Overall, 57 men participated in the HIV-specific group and 55 participated in the health lifestyle-specific group.

Throughout the 12-week study, the participants were offered no-cost HIV home testing kits every four weeks. The group leaders recorded information on their interactions with participants.

They randomly assigned the participants to two different types of groups: one led by people who sent info on HIV prevention and testing to members via Facebook; and the other led by people who send members info on maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

Overall, the researchers found that men in the HIV prevention groups were more likely to interact with their leaders through messages and Facebook's chat feature.

Men in the HIV prevention groups were also more likely to request HIV test kits, compared to men in the healthy living groups.

Of the 57 men in the HIV prevention groups, 25 requested at-home HIV tests and nine of those tests were returned. In the healthy-living group, only 11 of the 55 men requested HIV tests, with only two being returned.

On average, men in both groups reported small reductions in the number of sexual partners during the study period. More than 90 percent of the men in the study stayed with it until it ended.

"I'm convinced that this approach will be able to create sustainable behavior changes," Young said, with Bell adding that she felt the method could be implemented soon.

It is particularly promising because it's linked to more people getting tested, said Bell, adding, "I think the next scientific step is replicating this in a bigger group and then I'd say it's ready for primetime and large scale dissemination. It's the first study that I know of in the U.S. that shows a link between social media and home testing and the use of clinical services for HIV prevention."

Although the researchers noted several limitations to their study, they concluded that the "active participation of African-American and Latino men having sex with men suggests that social networking is growing among minority groups and is an acceptable and engaging platform for HIV prevention among at-risk populations."

Winnie McCroy is the Women on the EDGE Editor, HIV/Health Editor, and Assistant Entertainment Editor for EDGE Media Network, handling all women's news, HIV health stories and theater reviews throughout the U.S. She has contributed to other publications, including The Village Voice, Gay City News, Chelsea Now and The Advocate, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.


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