October 25, 2012 — Summary of "Tweeting About Testing: Do Low-Income, Parenting Adolescents and Young Adults Use New Media Technologies to Communicate About Sexual Health?" Divecha et al., Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, September 2012.
New media "has the potential to reach a large audience and trigger dialogue about sexual health attitudes and norms," Zai Divecha, a program associate at the San Francisco Peer Health Exchange, and colleagues wrote in a study examining how low-income, parenting adolescents and young adults use the technologies.
Because young people are widespread users of mobile phones, social networking sites and the Internet, these technologies are particularly well-suited for communicating sexual health messages to that age group. Although several organizations track new media consumption among adolescents and young adults, no studies to date have examined their communication regarding sexual health, according to Divecha and colleagues.
The researchers developed a study to evaluate the use of new media among parenting adolescents and young adults in order to "inform media-based interventions" about sexually transmitted infections and other sexual health topics.
The study sample included 94 low-income, parenting individuals who were recruited through clinics at four Connecticut hospitals as part of a larger study on pregnancy and parenting among young couples.
The female participants were ages 14 to 21 and in the second or third trimester of pregnancy at the time of the initial interview, while their male partners were at least 14 years old and biologically responsible for their partner's pregnancy. Both partners had to be willing to participate in the study.
The participants completed computer-assisted self-interviews at either six months or one year postpartum. The interviews included a module assessing the participants' cell phone use, such as calls and text messages; social networking use; frequency of their communication about seven sexual health topics; and willingness to receive and share information. Additionally, participants were asked about demographic, sexual and psychosocial variables.
Nearly half of participants were black, 38% were Latino and 13% were white. Their average age was 20.
Ninety-three percent of participants reported owning a mobile phone, and the vast majority used it for making calls and text messaging at least weekly. In addition, 71% said they used Facebook at least weekly, and the median number of friends they had on the site was 250.
Fewer than one-third of participants reported talking with friends often or very often about sexual health. Most who discussed the topics preferred to do so with close friends, and they largely chose to do so in person. However, about half preferred to talk to their friends about sexual health over the phone. Fewer than 9% preferred to use social networking to discuss sexual health with a friend.
About 45% of participants said they would prefer to receive sexual health tips through text messages or email, while about 14% did not want the tips at all. Thirty-five percent said they would be willing to text such tips to friends, compared with 20% who said they would use social networking sites to share sexual health advice.
Fifteen percent said they would share on a social site that they underwent STI testing, while 16% said they would use geolocation applications to publicly check-in to an STI testing center.
Overall, 42% of participants were willing to communicate about sexual health through new media technologies. The study found that race was associated with willingness, with 59% of blacks open to using the technologies to communicate about sexual health, while 51% of Latinos were unwilling to do so.
Participants who were willing to communicate about the topics also had higher condom self-efficacy, greater STI knowledge and more Facebook friends than their unwilling counterparts.
Although nearly all participants used new media technologies, their preference was "to have conversations about sexual health privately, in-person or over the phone."
Based on the findings, "[m]edia technologies may be better suited to increasing access to information and services than to encouraging conversations about changing sexual attitudes and behaviors," the researchers wrote. "These results suggest caution as well as promise in adopting new technologies to implement sexual risk reduction interventions," they added.
One takeaway from the study is that public health groups "should not assume" low-income individuals have little access to new media technologies, the researchers wrote. More research is needed to understand the differences in willingness to discuss sexual health topics among racial groups, they added.
The researchers also noted that "[t]hose willing to use new media technology to discuss sexual health may ... make ideal popular opinion leaders in technology-based prevention interventions" because they were found to have better condom self-efficacy and STI knowledge.
"To be effective, a new media-based intervention or campaign must engage audiences and encourage participation," according to the researchers. Although "social networking sites may not be the ideal platform for changing norms about sexual health," the sites and other media technologies may be useful for identifying young people willing to discuss the topics and serve as opinion leaders to "expand the reach of media-based interventions," they wrote.
Debra Ness, publisher & president, National Partnership
Andrea Friedman, associate editor & director of reproductive health programs, National Partnership
Marya Torrez, associate editor & senior reproductive health policy counsel, National Partnership
Melissa Safford, associate editor & policy advocate for reproductive health, National Partnership
Perry Sacks, assistant editor & health program associate, National Partnership
Cindy Romero, assistant editor & communications assistant, National Partnership
Justyn Ware, editor
Amanda Wolfe, editor-in-chief
Heather Drost, Hanna Jaquith, Marcelle Maginnis, Ashley Marchand and Michelle Stuckey, staff writers
Tucker Ball, director of new media, National Partnership