Rates of STDs including syphilis, gonorrhea, and chlamydia are on the rise in the United States, according to recent data from the CDC. This has led to a lot of concern—and a search for the cause. According to popular media headlines such as "Swipe Right For Syphilis," the culprit is clear: sex and dating apps.
A growing chorus of journalists and public health officials alike claim that these apps make it easier than ever to find casual sex partners, which is promoting more hookups and thereby facilitating the spread of STDs. At least on the surface, research appears to support this idea. For example, several studies have found that people who meet their partners online do report more infections on average.
Case closed, right? Not so fast. While blaming the apps has intuitive appeal and the data seem consistent with the "swipe right for syphilis" narrative, there's actually very good reason to be skeptical of the notion that technology is driving the recent increase in STD rates. In fact, the truth of the matter is that changing STD rates probably have very little to do with dating and hookup apps.
The main issue here is that we're conflating correlation with causation. Although Americans started gravitating toward online dating around the same time STDs began to rise, it would be wrong to automatically conclude that the former necessarily caused the latter. That's because we may be overlooking other things that were going on at the same time that might have contributed to an increase in STDs.
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For one thing, we're testing for STDs far more often than we used to. In the past, STD tests were largely reserved for cases in which people showed up at a doctor's office with symptoms. Tests were then performed to find out what was going on or to confirm a diagnosis. Today, however, there's a lot of routine STD testing taking place regardless of whether people are showing signs of infection. By virtue of running more tests each year, we're necessarily picking up on more STDs.
At the same time, our detection tools have become more sophisticated, especially for chlamydia. The tests we're using today are just a lot more sensitive than they were in the past.
Coinciding with more testing and better detection is the fact that attitudes toward STDs are changing, too. The 80s and 90s were marked by widespread fear of STDs, especially HIV, which was seen as nothing short of a death sentence. Today, however, we live in the era of PrEP, which is extremely effective when it comes to HIV-prevention. Plus, HIV-infected persons now have a "near normal" life expectancy thanks to treatment advances. When you throw in the fact that an HPV vaccine is now widely available and all of the major bacterial STDs—syphilis, gonorrhea, and chlamydia—can still usually be cured by antibiotics (at least for now), it means that people today are probably a little less concerned about STDs in general than they were a few decades ago.
What all of this tells us is that it's very shortsighted to try and attribute rising rates of STDs to apps without first taking a bunch of other factors into account. The other problem with pinning the blame solely on Tinder and Grindr is that research has found that the people who use these apps tend to be more sexually active overall than people who meet their partners in other ways.
For example, in a 2014 study published in the journal PLoS ONE, I compared gay and bisexual men who currently had accounts on apps like Grindr to those who did not. We found that app users were more likely to have been diagnosed with an STD than non-users; however, app users were more sexually active both online and offline.
The most telling finding was this: we took app users' lifetime number of sex partners and subtracted from it all of the partners they had met online. It turned out that the resulting number was still significantly higher than the total number of partners reported by men who didn't use apps at all.
What this suggests is that those who use the apps would probably still be having more sex even if apps weren't around. In other words, there's a selection effect at play here, which means that app users' higher rates of STDs don't seem to be a pure function of the technology they're using.
With all of that said, it's certainly possible that smartphone sex and dating apps may be playing at least a small role in rising rates of STDs. For example, local public health departments often ask people who were recently diagnosed with infections like syphilis to report partners who may have been exposed. These individuals are contacted discreetly and encouraged to undergo testing and, if necessary, treatment. However, if someone deactivates or stops using their online account, that person might never receive notification, which could potentially allow an infection to spread to others.
As you can see, there's room for these apps to play some role with respect to rising STD rates. However, when you look at these apps in the broader context of changes in STD attitudes, detection, and treatment, it becomes clear that technology isn't the iceberg—it's just the tip.
Justin Lehmiller is the director of the social psychology program at Ball State University, a faculty affiliate of The Kinsey Institute, and author of the blog Sex and Psychology. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller.
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