Using meetup apps to promote safer sex
F inding a date isn’t much different from ordering a pizza for Joe Caloggero .
He opens up Tinder, a meetup app on his iPhone, swipes through several women’s pictures and profiles, and selects the ones he might be interested in. If someone reciprocates, he has a date — no texting or suave moves necessary.
Caloggero, 31, a machinist with General Electric, says he hopes to eventually find a girlfriend using the app, though he also considers looking for one-night stands.
That ability to find a sexual partner with a few taps on a phone screen has raised concern among health officials and physicians, who say these meetup apps, more commonly known as hookup apps — which use geo-location to connect people with potential partners who live close by — may be partially responsible for a rise in common sexually transmitted infections.
In Boston, health officials have seen chlamydia climb among 15- to 24-year-olds, especially in communities of color, said Dr. Anita Barry, director of the Infectious Disease Bureau at the Boston Public Health Commission. From 2009 to 2012, the rate of infected Boston residents in that age group increased 10 percent, to 220 cases per 10,000 people.
Health officials know they will not stop people from using meetup apps, which also include Pure and Hinge and have millions of customers. Instead, they hope to use the mobile platforms as a way to spread public health messages about safe sex and testing for sexually transmitted infections.
The commission has yet to perform a study on the risks associated with the use of hookup apps, but anecdotally, many of those infected use the apps to find sexual partners, Barry said.
The apps are “making it much easier to find a ready-and-willing partner who might be right in their area,” Barry said. “Sometimes, in that social network, there’s a higher baseline prevalence of sexually transmitted infections, so you don’t even have to have that many episodes of sexual contact to get infected.”
People who use hookup apps tend to have more sexual partners, Barry said, also elevating the risk of infection. Even though many of these people would be likely to have multiple partners anyway, the apps have made finding sex so easy that it fuels the rapid spread of infection, she said.
A study published in June in the journal Sexually Transmitted Infections found that gay men who used smartphone apps to find sexual partners, when compared with men who found partners online or at bars and clubs, were more likely to contract a common sexually transmitted infection, including gonorrhea and chlamydia.
Another study, published in January in the scientific journal PLOS One, found that gay and bisexual men who used smartphone apps reported having more sexual partners and had a higher prevalence of sexually transmitted infections than men who met partners in other ways. While the studies suggest a link between app use and the risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections, they do not blame the apps for the rise in number of infections.
Health officials believe the apps offer a prime opportunity to target health messages to specific high-risk populations, such as teenagers, young adults, and black men who have sex with men, all of whom have higher than average rates of sexually transmitted infections and have been hard to reach through conventional public health programs, Barry said.
“Health education has to evolve, just like people’s use of apps is rising,” said Dr. Kenneth Mayer, founder and medical research director at Fenway Health, a health care, research, and advocacy center for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in Boston.
David Novak of Online Buddies, a Cambridge-based social networking company, said mobile apps are not to blame for riskier sexual behavior or rising rates of sexually transmitted infections. There has not been enough research, he said, to determine whether they significantly affect sexual health.
Online Buddies, which owns gay dating sites and apps, said it promotes safer sex and testing through banner ads on its apps.
“That’s the brilliance of mobile apps. You can push messages out to certain cohorts and populations,” Novak said. “This is a captured population of just gay and bisexual men, which are sometimes difficult to reach.” He added that health officials can also reach black and Latino men who have sex with men through their apps, both of which are high-risk populations that often do not get tested for sexually transmitted infections or visit health clinics.
“We like to say these are intelligent people who can make their own decisions, but here’s this information to help make those decisions,” said Adam Segel, chief executive officer of Online Buddies. “It’s important for public health officials to work with us . . . and let people know these resources are available.”
Yet the increased risky sexual behavior can also be attributed to other complex factors. More young people are not using condoms or any other form of protection during sex than in the past because they believe they are invincible, Barry said.
During the early years of the AIDS epidemic, the risk of unprotected sex was starkly illustrated by the large ranks of dying or chronically ill patients, Mayer said, which had a “chilling effect on sexual behavior.” Now that the threat of AIDS is almost invisible with therapies that can mitigate its effects, younger generations are less aware of the dangers posed by unprotected sex.
“We need to enforce that some of these diseases are chronic and not treated easily,” Mayer said. “Our hope is we can use electronic media to educate people so they’re informed in a way that might affect their health.”
The Boston Public Health Commission spoke with more than 100 young people from various demographics to determine the best way to get out information about safe sex, and found that many teens turn to smartphone apps and go online for information.
The commission is working on several apps to improve its public health campaigns, which are traditionally displayed on fliers and have moved to websites in recent years. One app in the works enables users to quickly receive information about chlamydia, such as its symptoms and how it can be treated. Another app is a game that would provide education about sexually transmitted infections.
Apps seem to be redefining how people arrange sexual encounters, health officials said. There’s no stopping it, they reason, so why not reach people where they already are?