In a recent research it has been pointed out that online social networking sites could help to control the rise in HIV and other sexually transmitted infections by providing knowledge on these diseases to youth. But on the other hand these sites also increase the risk of meeting new sex partners online. This study was conducted among homeless youth in Los Angeles.
According to new research by Sean Young from UCLA and Eric Rice from USC in the US, online social networking - and the topics discussed on these networks - have the potential to affect sexual risk behaviors.
A total of 201 youths, recruited at a drop-in agency serving homeless youth in Los Angeles, California, took part in the survey. The young people were asked about their use of the Internet and online social networks - including their topics of conversation online, their sexual risk behaviors, their lifetime history of testing for STIs, and their knowledge about HIV and STIs.
The majority (79 percent) of participants used online social networks almost every week and they were particularly likely to use MySpace and/or Facebook. When using these networks, young people frequently talked to others about videos, drinking, drugs and parties, sex, love and relationships, being homeless, and school experiences. Almost 80 percent had previously tested for STIs.
The findings tell two stories. On the one hand, the use of online social networks for partner seeking is associated with an increase in sexual risk behaviors. On the other hand, the use of social networks is associated with increased knowledge and HIV/STI prevention behaviors among homeless youth.
Young and Rice concluded: "Our findings suggest that online social networks are popular among homeless youth, and that they can be used as a tool for sexual health interventions. 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.
"They could also potentially decrease homeless youths' sexual risk behaviors if the networks are used as effective sexual health communication and information portals by health researchers and agencies, to inform users about their risks and offer information on how they can protect themselves."
The study has been published online in Springer's journal AIDS and Behavior.