Dating apps are an easy target when it comes to placing blame for the stratospheric rise in sexually transmitted infections.
But it’s not quite that simple.
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The internet factor does more than facilitate casual sex: It makes it tougher to track down the former sexual partners of infected people, which makes it tougher to track and prevent an illness from spreading.
“If we can’t reach contacts at all, then there’s no way for us to let them know that they have been named,” says Ameeta Singh, an infectious disease specialist who works at an Edmonton STI clinic.
If you’re diagnosed with a reportable, communicable illness, a public health nurse will ask you for a list of your recent sexual partners so they can follow up with them. (They don’t tell the people they call who named them.)
This used to be a series of names and phone numbers. “We had one guy come in with a typed list,” Singh recalls.
But it’s tough if your point of contact is a Grindr, Tinder or Facebook account.
“There are some challenges, legally, around public health use of social media sites to contact partners,” Singh said.
“Sometimes patients come in and say, ‘I can show you the person on Facebook.’ That’s great, but we can’t use it.”
“Several provinces have attempted to do so and they haven’t been able to get around some of the legal and privacy issues. … You don’t know who has access to that person’s profile.”
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Toronto Public Health contacts people by social media when it has to, says Anthony Leonard, the agency’s manager of Sexually Transmitted Infections.
“When individuals do not have contact information for former partners, our managers and staff may work through the online or social media applications mentioned in the case history,” reads an emailed statement attributed to Leonard.
“We may use profile names or other unique information to help find previous partners. For example, people may not remember the name of the partner, but recall they were the drummer in a specific band. All of these details can be very helpful in locating individuals.”
The ease of anonymity and online identity fluidity pose problems, however.
“Individuals may forget screen names of past partners or they may be only geo-locational. For example, you hook up with a person today on an online hook-up site that’s close by, but they may not be in your area again and therefore it’s difficult to find them on the site if they did not know the profile name, or there are limited online photos,” he wrote.
“Unfortunately, this may result in situations where potentially exposed partners may not be traced and advised to go for appropriate testing and treatment.”
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Ontario’s Information and Privacy Commissioner says public health officials are allowed to communicate with people via social media “where it is the only method of communication available,” a spokesperson wrote in an emailed statement.
“However, public health officials generally must not disclose identifying information unless it is necessary to do so. It may be the case, in these circumstances, that public health officials are not disclosing any identifying health information when contacting people who may have been exposed to communicable diseases.”
Scott Sibbald, spokesperson for Alberta’s Information and Privacy Commissioner, says it isn’t something the office has dealt with.
But there are questions that come up in dealing with personal health information and online platforms.
“Despite the convenience, use of social media to collect, use or disclose personal or health information raises issues concerning security of confidential personal or health information, as well as the accuracy of the information,” he wrote in an email.
“What controls are in place to protect the information collected, used or disclosed on social media? And exactly what personal or health information is being shared or sought through social media? Those are just a couple of the questions that would need to be asked.”
But even if it’s kosher under Canadian privacy laws, Tinder won’t give health officials that data.
“We do not provide any non-anonymized personal information to third parties,” Tinder spokesperson Rosette Pambakian wrote in an email.
The internet and the applications it’s spawned don’t make people more inclined toward casual sex, says University of Toronto epidemiologist Dionne Gesink.
“It makes it easier and faster to find partners,” she said.
“It makes the sexual network more complicated: It creates more ties in the sexual network, which means things can spread.”
That’s what Gesink is setting out to explore now. She and her colleagues at Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health are embarking on an in-depth study to map Toronto’s “sexual networks” — specifically among men who have sex with men.
They’re looking for interviewees, so if you want to talk to them about the way you seek partners and your sex practices, give them a shout: firstname.lastname@example.org.