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Should Dating Services Promote Safer Sex?

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Digital dating services have helped millions of people worldwide find love, but critics say they've also increased public health risk. The use of dating sites and apps continues to rise, causing some to believe STIs are on the rise as a result.

Rhode Island health officials recently reported that the state has seen an uptick in a number of STIs over the last year. Between 2013 and 2014, the number of RI citizens diagnosed with syphilis increased by 79%. The numbers of newly diagnosed HIV patients and cases of gonorrhea also increased, by 33% and 30%, respectively.

Rhode Island’s health department says the increase in diagnoses is due in part to better and more frequent access to STI screening, but also believes dating services are at fault for allowing users to easily “arrange casual and often anonymous sexual encounters.”

This is not the first time dating services have been accused of fueling rising STI rates, but others believe the accusations are unwarranted.

In a study published in 2007 in the journal AIDS Care, Dr. Brian Mustanski, a professor of medical social sciences at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, concluded that those already prone to high-risk sex use dating services to meet partners, not that meeting partners online causes high-risk sex.

Still, a number of dating apps have taken steps to address the issue. Gay dating app Hornet, for example, prompts users to update their HIV status every three months. Scruff, another app for gay men, gives free and geographically targeted banner ads to local non-profits that work with the LGBT community, some of which address sexual health. There are also niche dating services that cater to users who know their STI status.

David Semerad, the CEO of STRV, a mobile and digital agency that has helped develop a number of dating apps, told Newsweek “There's so much power in the hand of these apps. If a dating app is a big part of your life, it has a huge impact on your decisions. You need to make it cool to be healthy and get tested often.”

Mustanski also believes dating companies should support larger public health efforts, though he doesn't see a direct correlation between online dating and risky sexual behavior. He says research shows people are most likely to take positive actions regarding their health when they're pointed directly to a place for help, like a dating app offering GPS directions to the nearest clinic for STI screening.

Weigh in: should dating services help promote safer sex?