Link Between STDs, “Hookup Apps” Needs Stronger Evidence

The Rhode Island Department of Health issued a report last week blaming social media for the state’s increase in sexually transmitted diseases like HIV, syphilis and gonorrhea.

As you might imagine, the headlines spread rapidly as countless news outlets picked up the story and social media devoured the sobering conclusion.  

Quickly, blame turned to “hookup apps” like Grindr and Tinder for the increase in STDs in Rhode Island and nationwide. 

But, after a closer look, NBC Bay Area uncovered the study gives no indication for exactly how researchers came up with those findings. 

More specifically, the report cites social media as one of many high-risk behaviors contributing to the increase. Others include having sex without a condom, having multiple sex partners and having sex under the influence of drugs or alcohol. 

According to the state’s report, between 2013 and 2014, syphilis cases rose by 79 percent, gonorrhea cases increased by 30 percent, and newly-identified HIV cases jumped by nearly 33 percent. 

"These data send a clear signal that despite the progress we have made in reducing STDs and HIV over the years, there is more work to do," Rhose Island health official Nicole Alexander-Scott stated in the report. 

Yet, if you’re looking for concrete data that outlines a causal relationship between the higher use of dating apps and a rise in STDs, you won’t find it.   

In an email with NBC Bay Area, officials from Rhode Island Department of Health stated that “there is no formal survey or precise figure” regarding the report’s link. Instead, the official went on to describe that, through a statewide Confidential Partner Services program, the department speaks with individuals who test positive for STDs to gather more information regarding where they meet sexual partners.

“During this process, we learn of the various ways people have met their partners including social media, parties, events, or any other way one would meet a partner,” the official wrote. “Through these interactions, we have learned that some people do use social media to meet partners.”  

In other words, social media was one way, anecdotally, that sexually active respondents described meeting their partners. 

It’s not the first time such a link has been drawn between the hookup apps and STDs.

A 2014 study published in the journal Sexually Transmitted Infections surveyed 7,200 gay and bisexual men in Los Angeles. It linked the use of apps like Grindr to a greater risk for gonorrhea and chlamydia than those who met sexual partners in person. 

That study, however, found no link between the method for meeting sexual partners and the odds for testing positive for syphilis and HIV.

The advent of social media apps has certainly made meeting a sexual partner more convenient than the previous decade. Tinder and Grindr provide greater accessibility to potential partners, leaving sex, casual or otherwise, a swipe or click away. 

This is the very argument many other states have made regarding their respective increases in infection rates.

And the conclusion, as in Rhode Island and nationwide, is certainly a well-informed possibility.

However, a formal study verifying the link has yet to be seen.

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