Just when you thought Facebook stalking couldn’t get any creepier, a researcher from the University of North Carolina has suggested that social networking sites could be the key to predicting and slowing the spread of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
Peter Leone is a professor of medicine at UNC’s Center for Infectious Diseases. According to Salon.com, Leone has discovered a link between the risk of STDs not just between sexual partners, but among members of the same social groups. The idea is fairly simple: people in a social group often sleep with other members of the group, and they likewise often share the same risk-related behavior patterns. People who convene in real life also hang out online, so your social network could tell you what kind of a risk you have for catching an infection.
“When we looked at the networks we could connect many of the cases [of a syphilis outbreak] to sexual encounters, and when we asked who they hung out with, who they knew, we could connect 80 percent of the cases,” Leone said at a recent international health conference. Leone’s thinking marks a paradigm shift in the way that warnings and information about STD transmission are conveyed. Rather than just targeting traditionally high-risk demographics with awareness-raising campaigns, Leone suggests that “social clusters” should be the focus.
You might have already encountered this principle in action, but in a slightly different context. If you’ve ever sat around during flu season, watching your friends’ health statuses drop like flies on your news feed and just waiting for your number to be up, then you’ve seen how social networks can be predictors of an outbreak. In fact, there’s even an app for that. James Fowler, a professor of medical genetics at the University of California, San Diego, helped develop an app that tracks the spread of the flu by monitoring keywords in users’ status updates. The app can then warn you that you’re at risk of catching the flu on a particular day, rather than just advising you that its flu season.
But don’t go looking for that STD-predictor app just yet. For one thing, such an app would pose serious privacy issues, especially with third parties collecting data about your medical history — and selling it to whom? Sexually transmitted infections aren’t like the flu; they’re more stigmatized, and very few people are inclined to judge your character based on whether or not you catch this year’s flu strain. For that same reason, an app that worked similarly to Fowler’s — by crawling your friends’ status updates — would have a much harder time gathering sufficient data to predict STD outbreaks. When you’ve got the flu, misery loves company, and you don’t mind telling the whole world to stay away for a few days while you sip chicken broth and watch reruns of Lost. You’re not quite so likely to shout from the rooftops that you’ve got the clap.
And if you do, more power to you. You just won 2,000 full-disclosure points.
But app or no app, there are still ways — and less invasive ones, at that — in which social media can help slow the spread of STDs. One of the primary utilities of social networks is in broadcasting modeled behavior that can become normative for a group. This can sometimes be a bad thing (like when every girl in my news feed thought it would be funny to post pictures of themselves on the toilet) but it can also do some good. Users who actively and openly model safe sex habits — updating their status to announce that they always use condoms, or get tested regularly for STDs — might just set the tone for their friends. An approach like this could be far more effective than traditional top-down sexual health campaigns, which are often attempts by a centralized authority to influence behavior and decision making.
It’s the same reason that videos go viral when your friends post them to their Facebook wall. “There is good evidence that [in terms of sexual behavior] we’re influenced by seeing what our friends are doing,” Fowler told Salon. “It takes real, deep, close social contact for people to change their behavior.”