A UCLA study published Sept. 3 in the peer-reviewed journal Annals of Internal Medicine demonstrates that an approach that combines behavioral science with social media and online communities can lead to improved health behaviors among men at risk of HIV infection.
The evidence-based approach not only led to increased HIV testing and encouraged significant behavioral change among high-risk groups but also proved to be one of the best HIV-prevention and testing approaches on the Internet, according to the study’s lead investigator, Sean D. Young, an assistant professor of family medicine and director of innovation at the Center for Behavior and Addiction Medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.
For the current study, the researchers recruited 112 men who have sex with men through banner ads placed on social networking sites like Facebook, through a Facebook fan page with study information, through banner ads and posts on Craigslist, and from venues such as bars, schools, gyms and community organizations in Los Angeles. Of the participants, 60 percent were African-American, 28 percent were Latino, 11 percent were white and 2 percent were Asian-American.
The men were randomly assigned to one of two Facebook discussion groups — an HIV intervention group or a general health group (with the latter serving as a control in the study). Each participant was then randomly assigned to two “peer leaders” within their group. The peer leaders communicated with participants by sending messages, chats and wall posts.
In addition to general conversation, peer leaders for the HIV group discussed HIV prevention and testing, while those in the control group communicated about the importance of exercising, eating right and maintaining a low-stress lifestyle.
While the men were under no obligation to engage with the peer leaders or other participants or to even remain members of their respective Facebook groups, the authors found that the participants were highly engaged and maintained active participation during the 12-week study.
Throughout the study, the men were able to request and receive home-based HIV self-testing kits. At baseline and again after 12 weeks, participants completed a 92-item survey that included questions about their Internet and social media use (including whether they discussed health and sexual risk behaviors), their general health behaviors (including exercise and nutrition), and their sex and sexual health behaviors (including HIV testing and treatment).
Among other things, the researchers looked for evidence of behavioral change — such as reductions in the number of sexual partners — and requests for home-based HIV test kits, along with follow-ups to obtain test results. Among the findings:
- 95 percent of the intervention group participants voluntarily communicated on Facebook, as did 73 percent of the controls.
- 44 percent (25 of 57) of the members of the intervention group requested the testing kits, compared with 20 percent (11 of 55) of the controls.
- Nine of the 57 intervention group participants took the test and mailed back the test kits to receive their results, compared with two of the 55 control group members, suggesting a greater likelihood that the approach can successfully lead one to take an HIV test.
- The intervention group members chatted and sent personal messages with much higher frequency than did the control group members.
- African-American and Latino men who have sex with men, who are at higher risk for becoming infected with HIV compared with the rest of the population, find social networks to be an acceptable platform for HIV prevention.
- African-Americans and Latinos also find home-based tests to be an acceptable HIV testing method.
Population of focus: Men at risk of HIV infection
Links to resource:
- News article on ScienceDaily.com
- Abstract of study: Social Networking Technologies as an Emerging Tool for HIV Prevention: A Cluster Randomized Trial
Journal: Annals of Internal Medicine