A new study published in Sexually Transmitted Infections has examined whether men who have sex with men were more likely to contract sexually transmitted infections using smartphone applications to find potential sexual partners, compared with meeting their partners in person or via specific networking websites.
The growth of the Internet and social networking has led to new opportunities for individuals to interact with each other. This scope has increased further with the rise of the smartphone application (or app) and in particular with geosocial networking (GSN) apps.
A GSN app is one where the location of the user, either submitted by them or found using a global positioning system (GPS), is used to connect local users to events and one another according to their interests.
The researchers note that from 2009, GSN apps such as Grindr, Recon and Scruff have been increasingly used within the men having sex with men (MSM) community in order to meet anonymous partners.
The first of these GSN apps was Grindr, an all-male app that uses its location-based technologies to link more than 6 million users across 192 countries. In July 2013, Grindr had 2,968,300 registered users in the US.
The researchers set out to determine whether self-identified HIV-negative, MSM clinic attendees who used these GSN apps had an increased likelihood of contracting a sexually transmitted infections (STI), compared with those who met their sexual partners via in-person venues such as bars or clubs, or through MSM-specific networking websites.
Between August 2011 and January 2013, data were collected on 7,184 self-identified HIV-negative MSM attendees of the L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center for STI screening through face-to-face interviews.
The participants self-reported on their drug use and social networking methods of meeting sexual partners, and the researchers found that:
- 34% of participants met sexual partners solely in person
- 30% of participants used a combination of meeting in person and online dating
- 36% of participants met sexual partners solely using smartphone apps, or these plus other methods.
Increased risk of gonorrhea and chlamydia found
The results of the study suggest that there is an increased risk of STIs in MSM using smartphone apps to find sexual partners, compared with MSM who meet their sexual partners online or in clubs or bars.
Although no difference was recorded in the likelihood of HIV or syphilis infection, the researchers found a 23% increase in risk of gonorrhea infection and a 35% increase in the risk of chlamydia infection in the smartphone app users, compared with the other groups.
In addition, they noted that smartphone apps were more popular in well-educated MSM under 40 years of age, from white or Asian ethnic backgrounds. They were also more likely to use recreational drugs.
GSN smartphone apps could lead users toward encounters that have a higher risk of STI.
The researchers say that they had hypothesized before the study that the efficiency of GSN apps would skew the users toward "riskier encounters with a higher than average prevalence of STIs." However, they acknowledge that their study has several limitations and further research is required.
For example, popular MSM networking websites such as Adam4Adam and Manhunt have their own app equivalents that perform similar functions to the smartphone apps, and yet they were classed under online dating within the study.
In addition to this, the study only selected data from a very particular source: an organization whose main purpose is to test and treat STIs, based in a city that has many areas that identify as gay-friendly.
Also, smartphone apps may be used differently by MSM in different areas of the country, where attitudes toward STIs could also differ.
The researchers conclude with an outline of where future study should focus:
"Future studies should focus on the potential relationships between long-term or relatively consistent use of these GSN apps and HIV/syphilis incidence.
Given that mobile technologies allow for a variety of functions beyond locating anonymous sexual partners, the feasibility and effectiveness of various culturally competent, electronic applications that emphasize wellness through testing promotion, prevention and education should be explored."
The popularity of GSN apps is growing increasingly, and more examples of research such as this will be needed in order to fully understand the implications of their use.