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21 August 2012

Social Network Sites: Useful Tool For Spreading Sex-Related Health Messages

Keywords: internet, media, teens, North America, focus groups, learning, social media, social policy, survey, viral,

Social network sites can serve as a useful marketing tool for spreading public health messages, especially because of its low cost and specific targeting possibilities. But what if the health message contains sensitive information? How can social network sites for instance be used to connect youth to sexual health services? According to a study in Sexuality Research and Social Policy, some factors should be taken into account before using social network sites to spread information about sexual health services.

Take aways

  • Privacy is very important for teens when they search for sexual health information online. Therefore it’s crucial that social network sites focusing on sex-related health messages guarantee youngsters anonymity. 
  • Before interacting online, most teens prefer direct contact with sexual health clinics first. Therefore it’s important that online social network contact should not replace traditional contact moments (i.e. group presentations, school visits, community events etc.) but serve as reinforcement afterwards. 
  • Whether teens accept friend requests from specific sexual health clinics depends on the trustworthiness and familiarity of the clinic and on other peers (whether they already accepted the friend request or not). For social policy makers it’s therefore important to target sexual health messages or campaigns to certain communities or schools. 

Study information

  • The question?

    What is the potential for using social network sites to connect youth with sexual health services?

  • Who?

    993 14-19 year olds living in low-income communities (median age: 16 years old; 40% boys and 60% girls; 49% of the teens were Latino, 12% white, 12% mixed race/ethnicity, 11% Asian/Pacific Islander/Filipino and 10% African-American)

  • Where?

    California, United States

  • How?

    This study was conducted as part of an evaluation of the health program for teen pregnancy prevention, called TeenSMART Outreach (TSO). This program increases access to clinical family planning services (birth control, pregnancy test, morning after pil etc.) for teens living in low-income communities (mostly uninsured). Teens participating in outreach activities were asked to fill out a questionnaire including questions about their Internet and social media use and interest in searching sexual health information online. In addition, focus groups took place with 58 teens and interviews were held with 22 of the TSO clinic staff members.

Facts and findings

  • 50% of the teens were interested in receiving sexual health information via MySpace or other social network sites (see also Figure 1). 
  • 41% indicated they would accept a friend request on MySpace from a clinic that provides sexual health services, 37% were not certain and 22% said they would reject the friend request. 
  • An explanation for this finding (derived from the focus groups) is, that some teens were scared for peer reactions or parental concerns when they would see the online connection. Others also indicated that they would accept a clinic more easily as a friend, if other friends already did. 
  • Staff-members also saw that their network quickly expanded after reaching a small number of teens on MySpace. That indicates the importance of peers. 
  • More than half of the teens who use the Internet (n = 927) reported to search for health information (see Figure 2). 
  • Privacy and convenience appeared to be the most important advantages for using the Internet to find health-related information.