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Study: Social networks facilitate homeless youth sex

Researchers studying homeless youth in LA find that while those who use social-networking sites tend to know more about STD prevention, they're also using them to seek out sexual partners.

Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore is based in Portland, Oregon, and has written for Wired, The Christian Science Monitor, and public radio. Her semi-obscure hobbies include climbing, billiards, board games that take up a lot of space, and piano.
Elizabeth Armstrong Moore
2 min read
Have you been poked today? Cambodia4kidsorg/Flickr

Researchers have found that homeless youth in Los Angeles are using social-networking sites to find sexual partners.

Sean Young from UCLA and Eric Rice from the University of Southern California interviewed 201 homeless youth, recruited at a drop-in agency in LA, about social-networking usage as well as sexual behaviors. And while the researchers are touting one finding--that the use of social networks is associated with increased knowledge of STD prevention--there is no getting around the other main finding: "the use of these networks for partner finding is also associated with an increase in sexual risk behaviors."

In other words, homeless youth using social networking sites in LA appear to be behaving quite like youth, homeless or otherwise, anywhere else in the world.

In the study, 79 percent of participants reported using social-networking sites almost weekly, with MySpace and Facebook topping the list. Of those, almost 80 percent reported having been tested for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) at some point.

The most common discussion points on these sites? Videos, drinking, drugs and parties, sex, love and relationships, being homeless, and school experiences.

In their paper, published in the journal AIDS and Behavior, Young and Rice admit that "As online social networks continue to increase, these networks could potentially increase sexual risk behaviors by facilitating an easy way to meet new sex partners." But they take an optimistic stance:

Our findings suggest that online social networks are popular among homeless youth, and that they can be used as a tool for sexual health interventions...They could also potentially decrease homeless youths' sexual risk behaviors if the networks are used as effective sexual health communication and information portals by health researchers and agencies to inform users about their risks and offer information on how they can protect themselves.

For now, Rice is developing an online social-networking HIV prevention program for homeless youth funded through a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health.