Let me get my biases out up front. I don't particularly like Facebook. I use it in limited circumstances, but it's far from my favorite place on the web. That's why I had to sigh when I saw an interesting article about a study that used the site to reduce STD risk. The paper, forthcoming in the November issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine actually made me appreciate the way that Facebook works!
The study used Facebook to engage young people in a sexual behavior intervention. After first recruiting youth off the site, those who "liked" the page were encouraged to recruit their friends to do the same. Then those friends were asked to recruit more friends. All young people who agreed to "like" the study page were then asked for informed consent, surveyed about their risk behavior, and either given access to a sexual health information page called Just/Us or a general news page with no sexual health information. The topics on Just/Us began to recycle after 8 weeks, but participants could keep it on their timeline for as long as they wanted.
What the researchers found was that those young people who were sent to the intervention page were more likely to use condoms and that they also had a higher percentage of acts of protected intercourse. However, this effect was only seen at the 8 week survey time point, not at the final survey that was performed at 6 months. This suggested that the effects of this intervention were limited to the short term, although I wonder what would have happened if they'd continued to create new material for the study webpage instead of running reruns. It's also worth noting that the intervention seemed to primarily encourage young people to keep using condoms if they were already doing so at the beginning of the study, not to encourage new users to start.
However, perhaps the most important take home message of the study was the importance of pushing information to individuals' timelines, instead of hoping that they'd come visit the study page. Researchers found that most of the interaction with the intervention was through posts on personal pages. Very few of the young people in the study actively went to the Just/Us page to read new material. This suggests that young people may be interested enough to read sexual health if it's put right in front of them, even if they're not enthusiastic enough to keep seeking it out on their own.