A new study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine finds that public health messages on Facebook can help encourage teenagers on the social media site to make healthier sexual choices, like using condoms. In light of other studies that find parents are failing to effectively communicate about sexual health with their teens — coupled with the woeful lack of comprehensive sexual education in high school classrooms across the country — social media tools may be the best avenue to reach young adults with medically accurate information about sexuality.
Over 1,500 young adults between the ages of 18 and 24 participated in for the University of Colorado study, which split participants into two groups on Facebook. One group ‘liked’ a sexual health Facebook page called Just/Us that shared information about STI testing and condom use, while the other subscribed to a page that provided general news items. When the researchers surveyed the participants two months later, they found that 68 percent of those who were receiving sexual health information from the Just/Us page reported they used condoms during their last sexual experience — over ten points higher than the young adults who weren’t subscribed to that group, for whom the condom use rate was just 56 percent.
Dr. Elizabeth Schroeder, who runs a sexual health website for teenagers that includes resources on topics ranging from birth control methods to locating health clinics, told ThinkProgress that the study’s results reflect the fact that “using social media to reach young people is absolutely brilliant.” As Schroeder explained, “You have to go where the clients are in order to reach them effectively. […] And social media is where young people hang out.”
However, the effects from the study were relatively short-lived. After six months, participants resumed their sexual behavior as normal and researchers stopped registering any additional impact from Facebook for the group subscribed to the Just/Us page. Schroeder pointed out that, while social media tools do help “make health advocates relevant and important to young people,” tactics for engaging youth must constantly evolve to ensure their attention doesn’t drop off.
“First, you have to keep the discussion going, and you need to keep it fresh,” Scroeder told ThinkProgress. “You can’t hope that it will maintain itself on Facebook or Twitter — you have to constantly change it up, switch up the format, and keep young people interested. Try a video chat or an online forum.”
RH Reality Check points out that texting is yet another tool that some medical professionals are using to connect with teenagers on sexual health issues, since texts can help remind teens to schedule appointments for STI testing or start conversations about alcohol and sexuality they may not feel comfortable bringing up in front of their parents. Certainly, in a society that has neglected to adequately educate young adults about the tools they need to ensure healthy sexual practices, new technologies may be teenagers’ best source of information when their parents and their classrooms continue to fall short.