Social platforms can help communicate sexual health messages to gay men

01 October 2019

New study supports the use of dating apps and social media to communicate sexual health information to gay men in England.

Asian man on his phone

Social media and dating apps are acceptable platforms through which to reach gay and other men who have sex with men with health information. Particularly those who may not be accessing sexual health services.

In a new investigation, the first qualitative study on this topic, 25 participants were interviewed following recruitment from dating apps and social media adverts. The findings provide useful insight into the pros and cons of using these platforms for sexual health promotion, in an era where rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) are rising among gay men in England.

The participants were all aged 16 or above, with the most common age group 30-39 years. Most were white, British, university educated, from the south west of England and in full-time employment. Two identified as Trans men.

While the researchers acknowledge that this is not a diverse sample group, and that using dating apps and social media to recruit participants may mean they were more likely to view these channels positively, it still provides useful insight into how to target men who have sex with men with sexual health information.

Although participants said sexual health information received via these channels may have no impact or may be ignored, they also said information may be read and shared with peers. They also have the potential to increase awareness of sexual health topics, increase STI and HIV testing and vaccinations, and lead people to ask their partners whether they had been tested.

But to be fully effective, participants noted that information should be delivered by trusted organisations and be engaging, sex positive, age-appropriate and not overly clinical in tone.

Participants expressed both a desire for information that is pertinent to them while also describing the experience of receiving information that is too precisely targeted to their profile or conversations as intrusive and “creepy”. This highlights the importance of testing content before information campaigns are fully implemented.

Distinctions were also made between social media and dating apps for communicating information.

People felt social media was a good way to receive sexual health messaging, as people have time to absorb the information while browsing. It was also seen as a good way to reach younger men who have sex with men and as having the potential to communicate more detailed information than dating apps.

However, participants said that information communicated via social media should be posted discreetly and should not appear on newsfeeds for others to see, especially if someone’s sexual orientation was undisclosed. Unless these steps were taken, interviewees felt that receiving sexual health information in this way had the potential to make people feel anxious and paranoid. Because social media reaches a wider population than dating apps, participants also felt the language used should be less explicit or sexualised than the language used on dating apps.

There was also concern that sharing or commenting on sexual health information on social media could lead to judgements, labelling and discrimination from others. Another issue raised was whether people might alter the meaning of information by sharing and commenting on it.

Participants felt that using dating apps to communicate sexual health information – via adverts, online chats and signposting to websites – could be a more direct, easy way than social media to target men who have sex with men.

One clear benefit was seen as the way in which dating apps’ geospatial technology could be used to tailor information based on someone’s location, which could be particularly useful for referring users to local HIV and STI testing services.

Dating apps were also seen as a good way to act as a reminder of safe sexual practices at an opportune time – when people are intending to have sex. However, others felt that, because people would be focused on looking for sexual partners at this point, they might be less inclined to receive the information than they would be when browsing social media.

Some participants made reference to the increasing trend of dating-app users displaying their STI, HIV and PrEP status on their profile. While some disliked this feature, others appreciated the openness and said it prompted them to seek more information.

A small number of participants commented that promoting sexual health information through dating apps may negatively affect the user experience, taking the fun out of meeting sexual partners, creating associations between meeting partners and infection risk, and causing users to question whether the timing of adverts was related to the person they were talking to.

Overall, these findings support the use of dating apps and social media to communicate sexual health information in order to reduce STIs among British men who have sex with men. However, more research is needed to develop interventions using these channels and to evaluate their impact.

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Written by Hester Phillips