Digital Media and Sexually Transmitted Infections

Image from the Huffington PostYoung people account for nearly half of all new cases of sexually transmitted infections (STI) each year. In order to reduce risk behaviors and related health problems, new approaches and strategies for STI prevention increasingly employ digital media, which includes computer programs, smartphone apps, digital videos and audio recordings, web pages and websites, and social media.

Dr. Melissa Gilliam, Dr. Julie Chor, and Dr. Brandon Hill reviewed the recent literature on this intersection of technology and sexual health in the latest issue of Current Opinion in Obstetrics and Gynecology. Their article Digital Media and Sexually Transmitted Infections presents and critiques the potentiality to reduce sexual risk behaviors by employing technological interventions.

In particular, the article explores the impact of digital media use on increasing STI risk, how digital media can disseminate public health information, and what new and innovative digital media interventions are currently employed to prevent and treat STIs.

The literature points out that since young people interact with digital media daily, health care providers should not only embrace these technologies for their health interventions, but also recognize the potential risks of using these types of communication. For example, young people send and receive up to 100 texts per day. Such ubiquity has ushered in new modes of sexual communication, including sexting. In addition to the risks that come when sharing sexually explicit words or photographs, public health researchers have asked whether sexting can influence STI or HIV risk behaviors — this article reviews some of that data.

New modes of digital media and communication also impact health-seeking behaviors, whereby youth obtain health information by actively engaging with peers or anonymously searching for content. Although adolescents use digital media to disclose information and engage in relationships, studies show that they also express strong privacy concerns about seeking health information on these platforms.

The authors also comment on sexual health interventions that used a technology, including one that tested a text messaging system that sent reminders about an STI checkup and another study that used Facebook to create HIV awareness and intervention. The authors found these varying studies inconclusive, but acknowledge the value of establishing the potential of using these technologies in public health research and advocacy. However, a better understanding of how social media and other digital media contribute to sexual behaviors is critical to understanding increasing STI rates among adolescents.

Read the entire article and summaries of existing research here.


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