CBC News
Mark Gollom
29 April 2016

When Alberta Health Services suggested an outbreak in sexually transmitted diseases can be blamed on so-called hookup apps, it was only repeating claims made recently by health officials in other jurisdictions.

Health department officials in some U.S. states, such as Rhode Island have blamed the rise of sexually transmitted diseases on social media tools like Tinder and Grindr, which allow users to search for potential partners with the simple swipe of a screen.  British Health Officials have also blamed these apps for increasing the rates of infection.

Last year, the U.S. Aids Healthcare Foundation took it a step further, putting up billboards across Los Angeles showing two pairs of silhouetted figures face to face. The figure labelled “Tinder” faces “chlamydia,” and “Grindr” faces “gonorrhea.”

Tinder sent a cease and desist letter to the organization, but they settled their feud after the app added a feature to locate sexually transmitted disease clinics.

Yet despite all the finger-pointing at these social media dating tools, some researchers say there just hasn’t been enough research done to prove a link between these apps and the rise of sexually transmitted infections.

“It’s very easy for policy-makers and other public health officials to make these broad statements about the apps being the reason that STIs are spiking,” said Ian Holloway, assistant professor of social welfare at UCLA who has done research into these issues.  “But we don’t really have data to support that.

“We don’t know if apps are driving these epidemiological trends.”

Grindr is a popular dating site for gay men. (Grindr)

The apps obviously facilitate meeting, he said, and for those interested in having sex with a lot of people, they would be a logical place to look. However, there are in-person venues, like bars, where some are also just looking to have sex.

“So there’s a big question in my mind about whether these [app] contexts are any more or less risky than those in-person venues,” Holloway said.

On Tuesday, Alberta health officials revealed they recorded 3,400 cases of gonorrhea in 2015, up 80 per cent from 2014. And there were more than 350 cases of infectious syphilis in 2015, doubling the amount of 2014.

“Our clinicians have told us loud and clear that they are hearing from patients that social media has enabled easier and more frequent casual hookups,” Dr. Gerry Predy, Alberta Health Services medical officer of health, said in a statement to CBC News.

“We have always known that casual hookups are more likely to contribute to increased rates of STI transmission. To the extent that social media could be enabling these hookups to occur more often/frequently, social media would also be contributing to the STI rate increases we are seeing.”

Predy said epidemiological work completed by the Public Health Agency of Canada in Alberta found that confirmed cases of sexually transmitted diseases studied in 2015 included a significant volume of social media and online hookup sites.

For example, he said, of the cases of gonorrhea confirmed in the Edmonton Zone in 2015, the use of apps and websites was the most frequently mentioned method of meeting sexual partners.

Association vs. causation

But to really prove a link would take a sophisticated longitudinal study, one that would parse out what new infections could be attributed to these partner-seeking apps, Holloway said.

He cited one recent study involving gay men in Los Angeles that found a correlation between app use and sexually risky behaviour. But it’s unclear, at least from that study, whether those who are engaged in that kind of behaviour are more likely to use those kinds of apps.

David Brennan, a University of Toronto associate professor of social work, acknowledged that more people are using hookup apps at the same time rates for sexually transmitted diseases are going up.

“So it’s kind of easy to say they fit together,” he said. “But if you go back to your basic statistics, you have to look at association versus causation.”

For someone who is going to engage in sexual contact with someone else without protection, “the app is not going to make a difference in that,” Brennan said. “It’ s not going to matter how you connect up with someone.”

He said what’s needed is a specific study that examines “people who are not using the phones and people who are using the phones and see if their sex life changes over a period of time.”​

An illustration of the Neisseria gonorrhoeae bacterium that causes gonorrhea. (www.royaltystockphoto.com/Shutterstock)

There is a certain efficiency to hookup apps that might increase how often people connect, he said.

“But is that because of the app or because that’s a person who enjoys having a lot of sex? And if they didn’t have the app, they might still be having a lot of sex with other people.”

While it’s certainly possible hookup apps are playing a role in the increase of these infections, there are other factors to consider.

Better reporting and increased public awareness about sexually transmitted diseases may be encouraging more people to get tested, bumping up the numbers, said Holloway.

With HIV a treatable virus, Brennan said some may engage in “treatment optimism” and be more casual about protection and less worried about infections because they believe they can be treated for all potential sexually transmitted diseases.

“There are things that drive STI rates,” Brennan said.  “I’m not really sure that they have anything to do with phones.”