By: Melissa Shaw

A groundbreaking research project launched by the University of California in Los Angeles has found that Facebook can be a highly effective tool in encouraging young African Americans to talk candidly about sexually transmitted diseases and the importance of regular testing. While some may have initially doubted the acceptability of using Facebook to discuss such personal topics, researchers discovered that the participants in the study were not only open to discussing these sensitive matters, but the online dialogue convinced many to get themselves tested for HIV and other STDs.

Social Media Breaks Down Barriers and Taboos

The University of California’s study involved the creation of a public Facebook group for the discussion of HIV and other STDs among young African Americans and Latinos, two demographics that researchers suggested were particularly “at risk.” The involvement of youth in online group discussions led by researchers and community activists was entirely voluntary, with those involved given the option not to participate in any given topic and had the opportunity to leave the group at any point. Over the course of 485 online conversations, the study found that while older participants were most concerned about discussing prevention and the significance of regular testing, as well as the historic stigma associated with HIV, younger Facebook users were more interested in discussions that explored the symptoms, the impact and treatment of the disease. Yet by the end of the study, those who joined the discussion on testing and prevention were frequently convinced to get tested themselves.

STDs and Young Adults

Sexually transmitted diseases are more common than many would think among young adults, and while Blacks and Latin American millennials are more heavily impacted, this is a problem among all ethnic and racial groups. Kwikmed report that a staggering 25% of all American university students have an STD. The African American population has a proportionally higher occurence of HIV in particular, as well as AIDS-related deaths. Throughout the country, 40% of all AIDS deaths have been among African Americans, despite the fact that this demographic represents only 14% of the total American population. In past decades, a lack of awareness of the fact that HIV can strike any racial group, as well as people of all genders and sexual orientations resulted in a growing pandemic among African Americans. African American millennials are especially at risk, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggesting that Blacks and Latinos under 29 years of age account for an alarming 69% of all new HIV cases among those who are between 13 and 29 years of age in the US.

The figures are even more troubling among Blacks between 13 and 24 years of age. In one of the most recent studies, fully two-thirds of all new diagnosed cases of HIV or AIDS in this age cohort were among African Americans. Gay and bisexual black men have the highest rate of HIV infection.

Facebook and Building Awareness

Social workers, volunteers and activists involved in HIV advocacy indicate that there is still a long way to go when it comes to building awareness of HIV and STDs among youth and young adults. The Center for Disease Control found that 8 out of 10 African Americans and Latinos of school age are not provided the basic resources and tools that form the foundation of HIV prevention and testing each year. The need to create relevant educational programs and materials for transgendered young adults is also becoming more of a pressing matter.

Yet over the past years, HIV-related educational campaigns have begun springing up on Facebook. RiseUpToHIV is one community group that uses social media very effectively in educating youth and young adults by encouraging those impacted by the disease to send in their stories and testimonies.
In particular, Rise Up’s “No Shame” campaign aims to the address the stigma associated with HIV and AIDS that so many participants of the University of California study referenced in their discussions.

The fact that 47.7% of all African Americans use Facebook and that 25% are also on Twitter suggests that social media sites can serve as remarkably effective vehicles when it comes to raising awareness of HIV and other STDs, and in encouraging both prevention and diagnosis among America’s youngest and sometimes most vulnerable populations.