Impact of Social Networking on Sexual Behavior

March 3, 2011

A new study shows that a large percentage of homeless youths use social networking, which can lead to an increase in risky sexual behaviors.

A new UCLA AIDS Institute study suggests that the use of social networking websites by homeless youth can lead to an increase in risky sexual behaviors. Interestingly, however, homeless kids who used these sites were also more likely to have been tested for sexually transmitted infections and to be better informed about preventing such infections and HIV.

Researchers were particularly surprised to find that nearly eight out of 10 homeless youth they surveyed actually used online social networking media, according to the study, which is published in the journal AIDS and Behavior.

"The study suggests that online social networking and the topics discussed on these networks can potentially increase and decrease sexual risk behaviors, depending on how the networks are used," said lead investigator Sean Young in a press release. "This is one of the first studies demonstrating that homeless youth use online social networking technologies, and it is the first to document the influence of these technologies on their sexual risk behaviors."

Young and co-investigator Eric Rice surveyed 201 youths between the ages 13 to 24 who were recruited in June 2009 at a Los Angeles drop-in agency that assists homeless kids. In a self-administered, hour-long computer survey, the youth participants answered questions about their use of social networking technology, demographics, their sex and drug risk-taking, their living situations, their utilization of the agency's services, and their mental health.

The researchers sought to learn whether these youth used social networking technologies and, if so, how such use might affect their sexual risk behaviors, their knowledge of HIV and AIDS, and how likely they were to seek testing for sexually transmitted diseases.

They found that 79% of all participants used social networking technologies every week, and that most of the participants had previously been tested for sexually transmitted infections (STIs), whether or not they used social networks.

In addition, more than 20% of sexually active participants reported having found a sex partner online over the previous three months, and more than 10% of sexually active participants reported that they exchanged sex for food, drugs or a place to stay. Both these behaviors have been shown to be associated with an increased risk of contracting STIs and HIV.

The topics the participants discussed online also had a bearing on their sexual activity. Researchers found that those who used social networks to discuss safe sex were more likely to have recently met a sex partner online than those who hadn't discussed safe sex. And those who had found online sex partners and discussed drugs and partying were more likely to have engaged in exchange sex than those who hadn't discussed drugs and partying.

The results also indicate that the use of these networks helped educate homeless youth about HIV and STI prevention.

"As online social networks continue to increase, these networks could potentially increase sexual risk behaviors by facilitating an easy way to meet new sex partners," the authors wrote. "They could also potentially decrease homeless youths' sexual risk behaviors if the networks are used as effective sexual health communication and information portals."