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Using social media to talk to young people about HIV – what works?

Hester Phillips

30 June 2022

Analysis of tweets from young men in the US finds they react to individuals, not organisations

A boy looking at his mobile phone
Photos are used for illustrative purposes. They do not imply health status or behaviour. Credit: iStock/Stígur Már Karlsson /Heimsmyndir

The popularity of social media among young people offers opportunities to communicate about sexual health. But what works – and what doesn’t?

What is the research about?

How effective HIV prevention messages on Twitter are at reaching adolescents and young people.

The study analysed around 8,000 HIV-related tweets from 1,500 teenage boys and young men (aged 13-24; mean age 18) in the US, which were tweeted between 2009 and 2017. Researchers were looking at what was ‘favourited’ or retweeted.

Why is this research important?

Adolescents and young people experience high rates of HIV. Yet they are less likely than other age groups to test for HIV or engage with HIV care. Using social media to reach them with messages about HIV has great potential. But there is limited evidence about how effective social media is at engaging young people.

What did they find out?

HIV-related tweets from individuals had 77% greater odds of being engaged with (favourited or retweeted) than tweets from institutions. The odds of a tweet being favourited were three times higher for tweets from personal accounts than institutional ones.

But age is also important. For each additional year in a user’s estimated age, the odds of a tweet being engaged with fell by 8%.

The more followers a user has also matters. Each additional 100 followers that a user had was associated with a 0.5% increase in the chance of their tweet being engaged with.

Tweets discussing specific sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV, were 40% less likely to be engaged with than tweets that discussed how people behave or should behave in relation to sex or sexual health.

Tweets that focused on research, education or news related to HIV were 23% less likely to be favourited compared with tweets that discussed HIV in a different context.

Over half of all tweets (55%) were posted during the daytime (9am until 5pm). Around 27% were posted in the evening (5pm until midnight) and 18% at night (midnight until 9am).

Longer tweets received greater engagement.

What does this mean for HIV services?

These findings show that who posts on social media matters. HIV-related messages from organisations are less likely to get a response from young people than messages posted by individuals. And younger individuals are more likely to be engaged with than older ones.

This means it is a good idea to partner with young people to not only design but to post HIV messages on social media. Working with young people with large followings can be particularly effective.

But although institutional tweets were not often retweeted or favourited it does not mean they are worthless. It is possible that they were still read by many young people and the information was communicated as intended.

It is also important to think about the content of social media messages. It is better to avoid direct discussion of issues related to specific STIs, including HIV. Instead, include these messages in more general discussions about sex and sexuality and the social realities of young people’s lives.

Using shareable social media language and styles, such as memes and videos, may also appeal more to young people than just using facts and knowledge. The time tweets are posted and their length can also affect engagement.

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