Social media networks like Facebook and Twitter have become vital to spreading information among people from all age, racial, and socio-economic backgrounds, so why not utilize it for potential health benefits? A study out of Columbia University School of Nursing has revealed that HIV prevention tips spread through video games, text messages, chat rooms, and social media have been linked to less risky sexual behavior and more HIV testing among gay and bisexual men.

"This is a population that is very used to technology, and there is built-in privacy and immediacy with digital communication that may be especially appealing to men who aren't comfortable disclosing their sexual orientation or their HIV status in a face-to-face encounter," assistant professor at Columbia Nursing, Dr. Rebecca Schnall said in a statement. "If we want to reduce HIV infection rates, particularly among younger men, we need to explore the use of technology to meet them where they live – online and on their phones."

Schnall and her colleagues reviewed literature published between January 2000 and April 2014 that analyzed the effectiveness of eHealth interventions for HIV prevention among gay and bisexual men. Sexpulse, an interactive website designed by healthcare professionals and computer programmers to target men looking for sexual partners via the internet, was linked to reductions in risky sexual behavior. Keep It Up! (KIU), a website that spread prevention methods through video games, helped by reducing rates of unprotected anal sex.

Self-reported HIV testing among chat room participants increased when a sexual health expert entered the chat room to post information regarding HIV testing and responded to participants seeking HIV information. The research team also praised the use of Facebook and Twitters for spreading HIV-prevention tips to their friends and followers. Requests for HIV testing kits increased due to the sharing of HIV testing information by trusted sources on social media. Opinion leaders sharing HIV prevention methods on social media also increased both testing rates and the use of condoms during anal sex.

"Taken together, the findings from all of these relatively small studies demonstrate the enormous potential of eHealth as a tool to prevent HIV," Schnall added. "What we now have is a road map to follow for larger, longer trials that may definitely confirm the effectiveness of eHealth in fighting the spread of HIV."

Although outreach and education programs have stabilized overall HIV infection rates in the United States, the number of new infections among gay and bisexual men has been steadily increasing. Gay and bisexual man may only represent seven percent of the male population in the U.S., however they also account for 78 percent of new HIV infections among men.

Source: Travers J, Rojas M, Schnall R, et al. eHealth Interventions for HIV Prevention in High-Risk Men Who Have Sex with Men: A Systematic Review. Journal of Medical Internet Research. 2014.