A new study finds a link between gay men using dating apps and a greater likelihood of having STIs, but we have to be careful to put this study in context.
The study, conducted by researchers at the Los Angeles LGBT Center and published in the journal Sexually Transmitted Infections, made a cross sectional analysis of 7,184 men from West Hollywood and Long Beach, California, and used face-to-face interviews to ask about participants’ sexual practices and their drug use.
Among other things, the study found that if the men met other men through what the study terms “Geosocial networking applications (GSN apps),” in this case apps like Grindr or Scruff that exploit a smartphone’s global positioning technology to tell you when other people with that app are nearby, they were significantly more likely to contract particular sexually transmitted infections, with a 25% increase in gonorrhea rates and a 37% higher chlamydia infection rate. There was no significant rise in HIV rates or syphilis infection rates though.
The 36% of men who used GSN apps to meet sexual partners over meeting someone in a bar or on the Internet also tended to be more likely to use recreational drugs and, as you might have already guessed, were more likely to indulge in sexually risky behavior. Interestingly, the demographic that preferred using GSN apps tended to be younger, white college educated men.
The Internet is abuzz with headlines that imply apps like Grindr are leading more men to get sexually transmitted infections, but with more men using these apps, and Grindr’s market having more than tripled since 2012 to an excess of 6 million worldwide users, it’s important we’re really clear about what this study does and doesn’t say.
We should recognize from the outset that this research is valuable, of course. There are only a handful of studies that even scratched the veneer on GSM app meet-up practices and their health implications, and so any insight is welcome. As ever though, it’s all about context, and the context here is that this sample was a very narrow one from a very particular area of the United States. We can’t even say safely that the study is concrete enough for us to assert that all Los Angeles men who use GSM apps to meet other men are more likely to have an STI — the data simply isn’t comprehensive enough for that, though as the study does suggest we might be able to draw similar conclusions about other Los Angeles counties with roughly the same demographics.
Furthermore, the fact that the population sample was taken from men who already visit STI clinics is significant and shapes what we can draw from the study. These men may have been getting tested perhaps precisely because they know that their sexual practices put them at a heightened risk of contracting certain STIs and therefore they may not be representative of the vast majority of users of these kinds of app. Or they might be, but from this cross-sectional analysis we can’t be sure.
The main issue that we should flag on how this study has been reported though, is the media’s apparent desire to label these apps as simply hook-up apps without looking at the way in which people might be using them outside of looking for sex. The study itself acknowledges that out of the Los Angeles setting we can’t say how users are actually engaging with this kind of technology, and it might be that in rural settings where a lack of gay-accepting venues are a problem, the GSM apps may be used not just as “hook-up” apps but as relationship starters or as a means to meet friends. This slightly different approach to the apps would probably drive down the comparative rates of STI infections through GSM app meet-ups, so once again it’s important to qualify what we’re saying when we report that Grindr users, for example, are more likely to have an STI.
The researchers believe that this study points the way toward future research, primarily into wider screenings to get a better picture of GSM app use and its link with STI rates. Crucially, we might also conclude that working with GSM app makers to include in their gay dating apps various sexual health messages and products may be beneficial to helping drive down infection rates or at least keeping them manageable.
So what this study tells us is that there probably is a link between casual sexual encounters made through smartphone apps and a higher likelihood of contracting an STI if the user is engaging in unprotected sex. That’s not Earth-shattering news. Yet, even more crucially, it’s important to stress we don’t know enough about how these apps are being used to allow us to formulate a proper response to the health challenges that may arise.
We do know, however, that blunt reporting on studies like this without delving into what the research actually says, is also incredibly unhelpful for furthering our understanding of this issue.
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