Popular dating apps could soon help stop the spread of record high STD infections among their users.
Grindr and other primarily gay dating apps are exploring ways to add the ability for people who test positive for an STD to notify partners using the app, Mashable has learned in multiple interviews with public health experts.
According to Dr. Heidi Bauer, the chief of STD control at the California Department of Health, and Dan Wohlfeiler, director of the health consortium Building Healthy Online Communities (BHOC), STD partner notification messages are currently under consideration by several different app-makers, including Grindr, with one possibility already in the design and piloting phase.
When asked for comment, Jack Harrison-Quintana, director of Grindr for Equality said, “Grindr works very closely with Building Healthy Online Communities on several initiatives including STD related notifications.”
According to Dr. Bauer and Wohlfeiler, the most immediate and likely iteration of this functionality will be through a section in the apps that links out to existing anonymous notification services. Wolfheiler said that this sort of service is “currently being designed and piloted,” but that there is no firm timeline for release.
In-app messaging — in which an STD notification takes place entirely within the app ecosystem — is on the table as well.
“A number of different possibilities have been discussed,” Dr. Bauer said in a recent phone call with Mashable. “It’s just sort of a matter of feasibility and impact.”
“The decision made was, let’s go forth with this system right now, where we have a link to external website that can do that,” Wohlfeiler told Mashable. “And then we can continue to discuss other options as they go. So we’re really excited.”
This increased integration between gay dating apps and public health initiatives has come about thanks to the Building Healthy Online Communities consortium. Since 2014, BHOC brought hook-up app creators together with public health agencies and officials to promote HIV and STD prevention.
BHOC participants include Grindr, Adam4Adam, Daddyhunt, and other apps, as well as the National Coalition of STD directors, the AIDS Foundation, and other organizations. Conversations about how the apps can play a bigger role in STD notification have been part of ongoing discussions in the consortium.
When asked about the decision to link out to STD notification resources referenced by Wohlfeiler, Grindr’s Harrison-Quintana said, “We are exploring several additional sexual health-related features for our application. However, at this time, we are not disclosing any further details around this project.”
Grindr recently launched several features around HIV testing reminders and HIV status sharing. While experts greeted that move enthusiastically, Grindr also became embroiled in controversy after Buzzfeed learned that it was sharing HIV status and location data with third parties. Grindr has pledged to stop that practice. But since then, Grindr has neither shared plans for nor implemented broader STD partner notification.
The app Adam4Adam already includes a link on its Health Resources page to “STD notification services for partners and tricks,” which directs to InSpot.org. Adam4Adam could not be reached for further comment, though they are a BHOC partner.
The app Daddyhunt, another BHOC partner, plans to release a new version of its app this summer that will include an option to log the date of a user’s last STD test, and receive testing reminders every three months. Daddyhunt’s General Manager, Casey Crawford, said that it is also in preliminary discussions with BHOC about including partner STD notification resources as part of an upcoming user interface redesign.
STD rates, particularly syphilis, have climbed among men who have sex with men in recent years. A notification system that’s linked to or integrated into hookup apps would make it easier for infected patients to tell current and past sexual partners they should get tested.
“I’m super optimistic that we’re going to move in that direction,” Dr. Bauer told Mashable. “We’re not quite there yet, but there are definitely discussions.”
This revelation comes two weeks after the California Department of Health’s chief of the division of communicable disease control, James Watt, told theSan Francisco Chroniclehe believes social media has played a significant role in the recent increase in STD infection rates. Experts appear to agree with his assessment, but have added the major caveat that other factors have also played a role in the recent uptick in STD infections.
As for ways that apps can play a role in STD testing and messaging, Bauer said she can see the feature working in a few ways.
The linking out option would essentially educate and provide access to notification services that app users might not know exist. That would certainly make it easier for people to contact former partners, and would be the simplest and easiest to implement option. However, Dr. Bauer also noted that an option that links out to an existing notification service relied on affected app users having the email or phone number of their past sexual partners. According to Dr. Bauer, most people who find partners on apps like Grindr do have the phone numbers of their partners. But a link out option would miss the swath of people whose communication was contained within the app.
“That is a potential gap,” Dr. Bauer said. “This workaround will work in the majority of situations, because people at least have a phone number. But there are going to be some people missed if no contact information is shared.”
As for in-app options, one iteration would make STD notification messaging an option between users. In this case, the app would allow its users to maintain contact with people through the app, in the event that they needed to be reached for the sake of STD notifications. Dr. Bauer says this could help stop the spread of STDs because it would enable people to notify a person they might have otherwise lost contact with.
Another option would be that the apps would own the notifications process themselves, which would help a person notify a former partner, while remaining anonymous.
“The app could take the responsibility, with the consent of the user, to send out a notification to a particular individual,” Bauer said. “The app could send a notification to say: ‘It’s really important that you get tested for STDs, and here’s a link to a zip code based search engine to find the closest STD clinic near you.'”
A capability like that could increase the rates of STD infection notification messages, thereby potentially stopping a chain of infection, and decreasing STD rates overall. That’s because people who might not otherwise notify partners of STDs, because of embarrassment, might utilize an anonymous notification process owned by the app to tell partners that they should get tested — without specifics. This mirrors the capabilities of services like STDCheck.com, that the linking option would direct users to.
App-integrated notification is the direction that Daddyhunt CEO Carl Sandler hopes to move in, as well. He wants to enable Daddyhunt users to notify one another about risks of infection, regardless of whether they exchanged phone numbers or not. However, Sandler acknowledged that creating that capability will be challenging — especially as an industry standard. But he is committed to working with BHOC to increase health and safety for the gay community.
“What we’re trying to move towards is a real dialogue into the intricacies of what it takes to actually deploy these features on a site by site, or app by app, basis, because everyone’s app is built differently,” Sandler said.
In addition to technical challenges, implementing STD notifications, especially anonymous ones, risks misuse and trolls. It’s easy to see how dates or even just conversations gone wrong could lead to retaliatory false STD notifications.
Bauer said that the conversations between dating apps and the department of health have been an evolving process.
“I think the initial discussions they were not excited about that,” Dr. Bauer said, about in-app notifications. “When we talk to them, we have to find something that fits in their business model.”
Bauer’s department has already collaborated with apps including Grindr for public health in important ways. The CA Department of Health partnered with Grindr, Hornet, and Scruff to alert users to get vaccinated during a 2016 meningitis outbreak in Los Angeles that was spreading within the gay community. And Bauer is enthusiastic about even further potential collaborations between departments of public health and dating apps.
She thinks it’s crucial to understand how dating apps play a role in people’s sex lives. The connectivity and communication they offer could potentially provide a lot of a positive opportunities for public health.
“We’re trying to use some of the same technologies in communicating with people, and notifying folks with health alerts,” she told Mashable. “I think we can’t condemn technology by any stretch. We need to just understand it and better use it.”
To that end, BHOC conducted a survey in 2013 that asked app owners, hookup website users, and public health officials to find common ground about the role apps can play in HIV and STD prevention. The resulting study has continued to inform public health efforts, including ways to make STD partner notifications easier.
“Nothing’s off the table,” Wohlfeiler said.
We’ll swipe right on that.
UPDATE 5/31/2018, 10:30 a.m. ET: This article has been updated to include further context about Grindr’s HIV status feature.