Research & Insights

Stigma, Social Media, and STIs

By Wayne Rivera

Vanessa Boudewyns, RTI International
Itai Himelboim, University of Georgia
Derek L. Hansen, Brigham Young University
Brian G. Southwell, RTI International, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Duke University

New research suggests that requiring people to use their real names on social media has led to a decrease in a willingness to discuss difficult topics online, especially ones that carry social stigmas, like sexually transmitted diseases.

Researchers Vanessa Boudewyns, Itai Himelboim, Derek L. Hansen and Brian G. Southwell examined how social media interactions compared to face-to-face interactions in discussions about a stigmatized topic – like STD testing – and how this may affect our willingness to talk about these problems.

In the study, published in the Journal of Health Communication in October 2015, 138 participants were given a survey to test the level of perceived stigma undergraduate students felt about getting tested for STDs. The study measured perceived stigma by asking students to rank on a seven-point scale how strongly they agreed with statements like “My getting tested for STDs is a sign of weak character.” The survey also measured how stigma affected their interactions with a partner, including questions about whether the participants had ever discussed STD status with their partner. Finally, the researchers asked participants how often people around them offered information about getting tested for STDs or discussed getting tested.

The results of the survey showed that the more participants believed the topic of STD testing to be stigmatizing, the less likely they were to ask a partner about their status or have conversations with others about getting tested for STDs.

A second study measured the effect that stigmatization of health conditions in general had on the amount of discussion generated on social media platforms about those conditions. In this study, the researchers tracked the number of tweets, Google searches, and funding levels for 13 different illnesses. These were classified as either low-stigma illnesses like breast cancer, bronchitis and high blood pressure, or high-stigma illnesses like HIV, gonorrhea and syphilis. The study found that on average high-stigma illnesses generated significantly fewer postings on social media than the low stigma illnesses. An interesting outlier was HIV, which actually generated the most tweets of all illnesses in the study.

The authors note that, “[o]verall, these results indicated that stigma had a similar, dampening effect on face-to-face and Twitter interactions.”

The similarity between face-to-face and Twitter interactions suggests that despite the anonymity of the Internet, public consumption of health information is still influenced by the level of stigma attached to health conditions. Social media websites may be particularly ineffective at facilitating conversations about health due to their tendency to mimic aspects of live interaction, such as avoiding uncomfortable or stigmatizing topics.

The authors argue the Internet still offers an important avenue to find information on stigmatized topics. However, public health and communication professionals should be aware that social norms for public behavior affect people in both the digital space as well as the physical one. With the growing tendency of social media spaces to take on characteristics of face-to-face interactions, intervention developers should seek to design interventions that offer greater anonymity in order to reduce the stigma constraining discussion in online media.

Journal of Health Communication

Wayne Rivera is a frankology contributor and student in the Department of Sociology and Criminology & Law at the University of Florida.

Posted: December 2, 2015
Tagged as: