Groups on the popular networking site Facebook may help educate men about HIV prevention and testing, a new study suggests.
Researchers found that specially-created Facebook social media groups helped encourage men who have sex with men to reach out for information about testing themselves at home for HIV.
The study is "really demonstrating a way to take what we already know to be effective… and translating it into the digital realm," Sheana Bull, professor and chair of the Department of Community and Behavioral Health at the Colorado School of Public Health in Denver, said.
"I think it does have a lot of potential and a lot of promise," said Bull, who wasn't involved with the new study.
"We wanted to look at if can we use what we know about behavioral science and behavior change and integrate it with technologies that exist," study leader Sean Young from the University of California, Los Angeles Center for Behavior and Addiction Medicine, told Reuters Health.
For the new study, Young and his colleagues adopted the community peer-leader model for Facebook. The prevention model recruits people's peers to act as leaders to inform the others about HIV and prevention.
In the past, the community peer-leader model has been associated with increased condom use and fewer reports of unprotected sex. Those behavior changes have been found to last up to three years.
Young and his team recruited 112 men who have sex with men from the Los Angeles area between September 2010 and February 2011. Of those, over 85 percent were African American or Latino.
In Los Angeles, African Americans and Latinos have a high incidence of HIV, and most cases are attributed to men who have sex with men, the researchers write in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
They randomly assigned the participants to two different types of groups. One type was led by people who sent information on HIV prevention and testing through Facebook to their members. The other type was led by people who sent their members information on maintaining a healthy lifestyle.
Throughout the 12-week study, the participants could request at-home HIV testing kits. The group leaders also recorded information on their interactions with participants.
Overall, the researchers found that men in the HIV prevention groups were more likely to interact with their leaders through messages and Facebook's chat feature.
Men in the HIV prevention groups were also more likely to request HIV test kits, compared to men in the healthy living groups.
Of the 57 men in the HIV prevention groups, 25 requested at-home HIV tests and nine of those tests were returned. In the healthy-living group, only 11 of the 55 men requested HIV tests, with only two being returned.
On average, men in both groups reported small reductions in the number of sexual partners during the study period.
More than 90% of the men in the study stayed with it until it ended.
"I'm convinced that this approach will be able to create sustainable behavior changes," Young said.
Bull said she believes the method could be ready for implementation soon, because many of the behavioral methods have been extensively researched.
"I think the next scientific step is replicating this in a bigger group and then I'd say it's ready for primetime and large scale dissemination," she said, adding that the method is also promising because it's linked to more people getting tested.
"It's the first study that I know of in the U.S. that shows a link between social media and home testing and the use of clinical services for HIV prevention," she said.