A new UCLA study published has found that combining behavioral science with social media/online communities can lead to improved health behavior. The investigators found that their evidence-based approach for using social media and online communities leads to increased HIV testing, encourages significant behavior change among high risk groups, and is one of the best HIV-prevention and testing approaches on the Internet. In addition, it applicable to healthcare concerns other than HIV prevention efforts noted lead investigator Sean D. Young, assistant professor of family medicine and director of innovation for the Center for Behavior and Addiction Medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, and the study’s lead investigator. The results of the study were published September 3 in the peer reviewed journal Annals of Internal Medicine
Dr. Young explained, “We found similar effects for general health and well-being because our approach combines behavioral psychology with social technologies, these methods might be used to change health behaviors across a variety of diseases.” The investigators found that participants were highly engaged and maintained active participation in the study. “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,” Dr. Young said. He added, “However, our approach appeared to overcome these issues and led to changed behavior.”
A previous study published in February, also led by Dr. Young, found that social media could be useful in HIV and STD prevention efforts by increasing conversations about HIV prevention. For the new study, the research team recruited 112 men who have sex with men either through banner ads placed on social networking sites such as 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, 605 were African American, 28% were Latino, 11% were white and 2% were Asian.
Each man was randomly assigned to either an HIV group or a general health group on Facebook, the latter serving as the control, and then randomly assigned to two peer leaders within their groups. Participants were under no obligation to engage with peer leaders or other participants or to even remain members of their respective Facebook groups. They were also allowed to adjust their Facebook settings in order to control the amount of personal information they shared with other group members. Throughout the study, participants were able to request and receive home-based HIV self-testing kits. At baseline and again at 12 weeks, participants completed a 92-item survey that included questions about Internet and social media usage, including their use to discuss health and sexual risk behaviors; general health behavior like exercise and nutrition; and sex and sexual health behaviors including HIV testing and treatment. Among other things, the researchers looked for evidence of behavior change, such as reduction of sexual partners, and requests for home-based HIV test kits with follow-ups to obtain test results.
The study authors found:
- 95% of the intervention participants voluntarily communicated on Facebook, along with 73% of the controls.
- 25 (44%) of 57 in the intervention group requested the testing kits, compared with 11 (20%) of 55 of the controls.
- 9 of the 57 intervention group participants took and mailed back the test kits to receive their results, compared with 2 of the 55 control group members, suggesting a greater likelihood that their 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.
- Retention at follow-up was more than 93%, in contrast to the high dropout rates from other Internet-based HIV-prevention interventions.
The researchers note some limitations to the study. Among them are that they used only two Facebook communities per condition, meaning these methods should be tested with more people before implementing them. In addition, no best practices regarding the use of social networking for HIV communication have been established. The next step will be to assess how this method might generalize to other populations, diseases, and prevention efforts, Young said. “We have created a potential paradigm for health behavior change using new social technologies,” he said. “We are beginning to explore this approach in other areas.”