A fact sheet on the Center for AIDS Prevention Studies (CAPS) at UCSF discusses the Internet as a social networking tool with the potential to help HIV prevention efforts. Although the fact sheet is mostly about adults, specifically men-who-have-sex-with-men (MSM), the information still points to the Internet as a powerful medium to deliver health and risk-reduction information.
Many individual use the Internet to meet people, including teens. Unlike meeting people in day-to-day lives, the Internet allows access across geographical spaces and allows people who would not meet face-to-face to establish relationships based on similar interests, or desired activity, and in the worst case, participate in sexually risky activities. Since a syphilis outbreak in 1999 was traced back to users of specific chatrooms, we have known that the Internet can enhance sexual risk.
On the other hand, the Internet may facilitate HIV prevention because it is anonymous and people can get information privately, disclose HIV status, or discuss condom use before meeting in person. It also provides public health with an opportunity to market HIV prevention messages relatively inexpensively. The Internet, with the support of online service providers, can increase HIV awareness, positively influence attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, as well as collect data for prevention efforts.
Specifically, moderators and blog owners can promote HIV knowledge, deliver education about safer sex, and develop specific HIV prevention sites for hard-to-reach populations, including isolated people, rural areas, GLBT youth, etc... These interventions can operate cost effectively around the clock, be easily modified, and are easily accessible and convenient in the privacy of people's homes.
The potential of the Internet is impressive, however, additional support is needed to evaluate these HIV prevention efforts, offer more web-based health assessment and referral systems, and develop additional policies and encouragement for Internet-based companies to promote safer behaviors.