Social Media Platforms, Dating Apps, or Search Engines – Which Work Best for Promotion of HIV Self-Testing?

African American male sitting smiling while texting on his phone

Key points:

  • Frequent testing can help reduce the spread of HIV
  • Home tests for HIV are increasingly available and are a great way to promote frequent testing
  • This study compared different types of platforms to see which worked best at encouraging a target population of minority men who have sex with men to order a free home-test for HIV
  • Dating apps were the clear winner, making these apps great targets for education and prevention campaigns for this population

HIV infection rates among minority men who have sex with men (MSM) remain high. Frequent testing for HIV infection can help identify new infections, and self-testing has the potential to make it easier than ever to catch those infections early – something essential to stopping the spread of the virus.

Self-testing is commercially available, approved by the Food and Drug Administration, and can reach individuals who have never tested before, as well as populations at high risk for infection, like Black and Latinx individuals. Optimizing the promotion of HIV testing is important, but what’s the best way to do it?

Social media and dating apps are extremely popular and are often used to promote and recruit participants for HIV prevention research studies. They could also be very useful in reaching individuals at high risk for HIV infection and promoting self-testing. Figuring out which platforms are the most effective can help public health and other organizations better target outreach campaigns to maximize efficacy.

This study, NIDA Clinical Trials Network protocol CTN-0083, compared ordering of HIV self-testing kits among users recruited through 3 different types of web-based platforms, including social media (Facebook and Instagram), dating apps (Grindr and Jack’D), and information search sites (Google and Bing). 

Culturally appropriate advertisements were placed on the six different platforms/sites, specifically targeting young (18-30 years old) and minority (Black or Latinx) MSM at risk for HIV exposure. Researchers compared the number of test kits ordered after each platform campaign and also looked at the association of a range of factors (assessed via survey) that could influence whether or not someone ordered a kit, like substance use, psychological readiness to test, and perceptions and attitudes related to HIV testing.

In total, 254 participants were included in the final analysis. Among them, 177 (69.7%) ordered a test kit. Most were ordered by participants enrolled via dating apps, with Jack’D showing the highest order rates (3.29 kits/day) compared to Instagram (0.34 kits/day) and Bing (0 kits/day). There were no associations between self-test kit ordering and HIV-related stigma, perceptions about HIV testing and treatment, and mistrust of medical organizations.

Conclusions: These results show that popular dating apps might be the best tools for promoting HIV self-testing among Black and Latinx MSM at high risk of HIV infection. Dating apps are frequently used by this population, making them a great choice for public health and other organizations planning prevention and education. Social media apps were less effective but did have some reach. Information search sites like Google, on the other hand, were largely ineffective in this study and may require additional optimization for effective targeted messaging. Identifying people at increased risk for HIV infection in preventive care using entirely remote methods is increasingly important and may represent the future of community-based HIV prevention.

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Stafylis C, et al. Relative effectiveness of social media, dating apps, and information search sites in promoting HIV self-testing: Observational cohort study. JMIR Formative Research 2022; 6(9):e35648.