Feb. 09 2016

Swipe Right for Sexual Health

Blamed for a spike in STIs, Tinder and other dating apps could actually help promote safe sex, says Eric Schrimshaw

With Valentine’s Day approaching, dating apps like Tinder and Grindr are sure to see a spike in traffic. But will that uptick correlate to a spike in cases of sexually transmitted disease? Some public health officials believe there is real reason for concern. To help ease their fears, Tinder recently integrated a new health safety section to its platform, linking users to information about safe sex and nearby STD testing centers.

“Tinder is absolutely on the right track,” says Eric Schrimshaw, associate professor of Sociomedical Sciences at the Mailman School. “If you’re going to be using an app like this, meeting lots of people and potentially having unsafe sex, you need to be screened for STIs and HIV frequently. If the app can help facilitate and make it easier for users to find testing centers, that’s a very good thing.”

Tinder’s move was prompted by a bold campaign by an advocacy organization in California. Last September, the Los Angeles-based AIDS Healthcare Foundation put billboards up around the city criticizing the role of dating apps in facilitating risky sexual behavior.

The rates of transmission for sexually transmitted diseases are, in fact, on the rise in the United States: from 2013 to 2014, the CDC reported a 2.8 percent increase in chlamydia, a 5.1 percent increase in gonorrhea, and a 15.1 percent increase in cases of some types of syphilis. But is it fair to place all the blame for these higher infection rates on apps like Tinder and Grindr? 

Schrimshaw, who co-leads Mailman’s Certificate program in Sexuality, Sexual, and Reproductive Health, doesn’t think so. His research, which focuses on how technology is transforming the ways people meet new sexual partners and how technological tools may lead to more partners and more risky behavior, has so far found mixed results. “We can’t necessarily blame the apps themselves,” he says. “It all boils down to the behavior of the individuals who use them. They may be more likely to have more partners and more unprotected sex in the first place, and the apps are just a tool they use to facilitate that behavior.”

While apps may not be responsible for their users' behavior, they can do more to encourage healthy sex. Schrimshaw’s vision is for apps to integrate more of the information seen on traditional dating website profiles, many of which prompt users to share their HIV status, sexual history, and whether or not they like to use condoms. By contrast, apps often have no such categories, instead offering users a blank space and limited character space to broadly describe themselves. 

Research shows that if something like HIV status is not mentioned in discussions between two sexual partners, there is a greater likelihood that someone makes an inaccurate assumption. “I think that apps prompting users to share more information helps make disclosure the social norm of that community of users,” says Schrimshaw. “That's then a good jumping off point for conversations and openness between partners.”

By one 2014 estimate, Tinder has 50 million active users, representing a large audience of sexually active people—a community that some public health departments hope to reach with marketing campaigns. This tactic has already been tried with at-risk populations: the New York City Department of Health regularly places pop-up and banner ads about PrEP treatment and HIV testing clinics targeted to MSM users on Grindr and Scruff.  

The world of dating apps is expanding constantly, not only in terms of sheer numbers of users, but in the variety of platforms. As infection rates rise, it’s no surprise that there are new dating apps designed specifically for people living with STDs: examples include Hift, for people with herpes, and Hzone, for people living with HIV. 

Tinder’s example shows that dating apps and the public health community can team up for a shared goal: to prevent disease transmission and encourage sexually active people to connect in safe and healthy ways.