A New Use for Dating Apps: Chasing Sexually Transmitted Diseases

Heather Meador and Anna Herber-Downey use dating apps at work — and their bosses know it.

Both are public health nurses employed by Linn . County Department of Public Health in eastern Iowa. They have learned that dating apps are the most effective way to notify users that people they have previously met on websites may have exposed them to sexually transmitted diseases.

National increase in sexually transmitted infections, also known as STDs – with cases of gonorrhea and syphilis reported 10% and 7% increase, respectively, from 2019 to 2020, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — don’t ignore Iowa. The duo discovered that phone calls, a traditional method of contact tracing, no longer worked well.

“When I started 12 years ago, we called everyone,” said Meador, who oversees the clinical branch of the county health department. It’s getting harder and harder to call someone on the phone.

They say that even texting doesn’t work. And people don’t necessarily reply to messages on Facebook. Dating apps are where they are.

Because many people meet mates online — through sites like Grindr or Snapchat, based in West Hollywood and Santa Monica, California respectively — contact trackers often don’t have much information to go on. , only display name or image .

So about a year ago, Meador and her colleagues got approval from their superiors at the local level to build profiles on the app through which they could contact their partners. infected people.

Traditionally, contact tracers interview people with STIs about their recent encounters and then contact those partners to tell them about possible exposure.

Linn County contact tracers use apps throughout their workday. In particular, Grindr relies on geolocation, showing users suitable people nearby. So followers use apps when they’re out and about, hoping to wander into the same neighborhood as someone diagnosed with an STI. Sometimes, users “tap” on a contract tracker to see if they’re interested — i.e. dating.

When public health officials spot someone they’re looking for, they send a message requesting a call. It’s a successful method: Herber-Downey estimates that 75% of the time they make the initial contact.

Linn County decided to go online as STI rates increased nationally, funding to combat them decreased, and people adopted new technologies to meet people and have fun. “STIs are growing much faster than the funding we have,” said Leo Parkerdirector of prevention programs for the National Alliance of STD Directors, all while public health departments – many of which are funded – are grappling with the new behaviors.

“Social media companies have billions of dollars; we have tens of thousands,” said Jeffrey Klausner Dr, a professor of public health at the University of Southern California, who previously served as director of San Francisco’s STD prevention and control services. That disparity in funding means that very few public health departments have staff that can go online. “Only really in the big cities do they have people assigned to that task,” Klausner said.

Even when departments have enough staff to meet the challenge, there may be a lack of institutional support. Some public health officials questioned employees who logged into the app. Klausner once testified on behalf of a Ventura County, California contact tracing officer who was fired for using sex sites for work.

But for those traveling online to meet partners, it makes sense to follow them. “We are in the digital age,” says Parker. Individuals may not be going out or may be questioning their identities, making online venues comfortable, anonymous spaces for romance — which means it’s hard for people to more direct approach, at least at first.

Furthermore, online spaces like Grindr are effective public health tools beyond contact tracing. They can be useful ways to inform about public health issues.

Parker and Linn County officials say public service announcements on dating apps – advocating condom use or sharing the hours of sexual health clinics – appear to lead people to the services. “We have individuals come in and say, ‘I see you get tested for free. I saw it on Grindr,” Parker said.

Grindr, which advertises itself as the largest dating app focused on LGBTQ+ people, delivers messages and information to its members. Jack Harrison-Quintana, director of Grindr for Equality. For example, that interaction intensified during the 2015 Chicago LGBTQ+ outbreak of meningitis.

During that outbreak, the app sent out citywide notifications about vaccinations. Harrison-Quintana then took advantage of the service’s design: Using the site’s geolocation capabilities, Grindr workers targeted messages to specific neighborhoods. “We can go in and really go to each neighborhood and say, ‘Is this where the cases are popping up?’” he said. If so, they sent more messages to that area.

That campaign spurred further efforts from the app, which regularly sends out public health announcements about everything from covid-19 to chickenpox to a base of about 11 million monthly users. of the platform. Grindr also allows users to display their HIV status and indicate whether they have been vaccinated against covid, chickenpox and meningitis.

However, there are some things that Grindr won’t do. The Company will not allow public health departments to create organizational accounts. And it will not allow automatic notification of STI exposure to be sent to users.

The company said it was due to privacy concerns, despite calls from public health advocates to implement better messaging features. Grindr believes that a government presence on the app would be too intrusive and that even anonymous notifications would allow users to trace back to the source of the infection. (When asked about public health officials joining the site on their own, company spokesman Patrick Lenihan said: “Individuals are free to say things like ‘I’m a medical professional. public health – ask me about my work!’ on their resume and be free to discuss sexual and public health issues however they see fit.”)

Grindr’s position – disappointing to some in the public health world, however – reflects a long-running balancing act that the private sector has attempted, aimed at addressing concerns raised by the private sector. government about the privacy interests of users.

Klausner points to the 1999 syphilis outbreak in San Francisco as one of the first times he saw how those interests could conflict. The outbreak originated in an AOL chat room. Based on his research, Klausner says it seems people can go online and “get a mate faster than you can deliver a pizza”.

But convincing New York-based Time Warner, ultimately AOL’s parent company, to cooperate was time-consuming and difficult — getting into the chat room required the help of the New York attorney general’s office. .

Klausner said the online industry has grown since then. He helped a service develop a system to send digital postcards to potentially exposed people. “Congratulations, you have syphilis,” the postcards read. They are edgy postcards, though some of the choices are less “ridiculous,” he said.

Overall, however, the world of dating apps remains “split in two,” he said. For public health efforts, apps that appeal to LGBTQ+ users are often more useful than apps that primarily serve heterosexual customers.

It’s due to the community’s history with sexual health, explained Jen Hecht, leader of Building Healthy Online Communities, a public health group that partners with dating apps. “People in the gay community have – what – 30, 40 years of thinking about HIV?” she speaks.

While STIs affect everyone, she said, “norms and expectations aren’t there” for dating apps that focus on candidness. Indeed, both Match Group and Bumble – the largest conglomerates with apps focused on heterosexual dating, both based in Texas – responded to multiple requests for comment from KHN.

But users, at least for now, seem to appreciate app-based interventions. Harrison-Quintana says Grindr has taken a fact-based approach to conveying health information. He never received any backlash, “that’s great.”


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