The use of online social networking sites by homeless children can increase risky sexual behaviors among them, shown in a study.
However, such kids were also more likely to have been tested for sexually transmitted infections and to be better informed about preventing such infections and HIV.
"The study suggests that online social networking and the topics discussed on these networks can potentially increase and decrease sexual risk behaviours, depending on how the networks are used," said lead investigator Sean Young at UCLA AIDS Institute.
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.
The researchers found that 79 percent 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 they used social networks or not.
More than 20 percent of sexually active participants reported having found a sex partner online over the previous three months, and more than 10 percent of sexually active participants reported engaging in what is called "exchange sex" - exchanging sex for food, drugs or a place to stay.
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.
But the results also indicate that the use of these networks helped educate homeless youth about HIV and STI prevention.
And significantly, homeless youth were more likely to have been tested for HIV and STIs if they were simply a member of an online social network.
The authors added that more research is required to learn if youths who seek sex partners online are at greater risk than those who seek sex offline, and if they are using other venues to engage in risky behaviour.
"As online social networks continue to increase, these networks could potentially increase sexual risk behaviours by facilitating an easy way to meet new sex partners," the authors wrote.
"They could also potentially decrease homeless youths' sexual risk behaviours if the networks are used as effective sexual health communication and information portals."
The study appears in the February issue of the journal AIDS and Behaviour.