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Can social media reduce HIV?

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Can social media reduce HIV?

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The field of behavioural science has been a burgeoning one over the last few years.  The movement has been led by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, whose book Nudge sent the theory into the mainstream.  Such was the appeal of this approach, governments throughout the world started building their own ‘nudge’ units to try and gently ease citizens into more beneficial behaviours.

A new study conducted by UCLA is of great interest therefore, because it combines the theories of behavioural science with social media, and looks at how social networks and online communities can contribute to healthier behaviours amongst men at risk of HIV infection.

The study saw 112 homosexual men recruited via banner ads placed on Facebook and Craigslist.  Of the participants, 60% were African-American, 28% were Latino, 11% were white, and 2% were Asian-American.

The men were randomly assigned to two Facebook discussion groups.  The first of which was a HIV intervention group, whilst the second was a general health group.  Each participant was then given two ‘peer leaders’ within their designated group.  These acted like community managers for the group, engaging with each participant and so on.

The community managers in the HIV group also posted specific content on HIV prevention and testing, whilst the control group managers stuck broadly to general health related topics such as exercise and good diet.

Throughout the experiment, the participants were able to request home based self testing kits, whilst a survey was conducted at both the beginning and end of the 12 week period.  The survey was designed to determine any behavioural changes amongst the participants.

It found a number of key 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.
In addition, the authors found that retention at follow-up was more than 93 percent, in contrast to the high dropout rates from other Internet-based HIV-prevention interventions.
“Internet HIV-prevention interventions and mobile health applications have had very high dropout rates and problems getting people engaged, and this effect is even more pronounced among high-risk groups such as minority populations and men who have sex with men,” the researchers said. “However, our approach appeared to overcome these issues and led to changed behavior.”
The researchers plan to widen their studies to include communities on other topics, to see if similar improvements can be identified in other areas.
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