Can Facebook and other social media sites be used to promote positive habits, such as safe sex? A new study aimed to find out, with surprising results.
Conducted by University of Colorado School of Public Health professor Sheanna Bull, the study looked at the behavior of 800 high school and college students. For two months, some of those students were assigned to receive regular updates within their Facebook feed aimed toward promoting safe sex practices, while the other participants received normal feed updates.
Follow-up surveys, which were given between two and six months after the study concluded, found students given the safe sex updates reported increased condom usage. However, Bull noted the increased condom usage reported by students exposed to the safe sex message was both slight and likely to be temporary.
“Though effective, researchers believe that safe
sex through social media promotion is short-lived.”
Furthermore, engagement fell below what Bull expected and desired. A number of participants exposed to the safe sex message opted out over the course of the study and the participants receiving these status updates rarely liked or commented on the messages. Instead, as Bull notes, “teens largely consumed the information passively — seeing it appear in their news feed — rather than visiting the ‘Just/Us’ page itself.”
Bull’s study suggested a variety of reasons why using social media to impact teen sexual behavior is difficult. One had to do with the development of the prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain related to impulse control, which doesn’t fully mature until as late as 25 years of age. Another reason Bulls cites is the potential stigmatization of teenagers seen to actively participate with safe sex organizations through public channels such as Facebook’s news feed.
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