You’ve decided to have a night out with that person you’ve met online despite COVID-19 infections increasing across the globe. But, in your thoughts, the threat of infection remains a source of concern. Are there safer ways to take care of this?

Health declarations for dating apps are a frequent event in recent times and might be the solution.

Although the fear of COVID-19 resulted in a surge of people publicly revealing the vaccine status on dating sites like Hinge and Bumble, experts believe that app makers are looking into ways to encourage and promote the same level of transparency in sharing information on sexual health.

For sexually transmitted diseases (STI), a possibility of a new app has brought back a debate over whether apps aid or hinder efforts to prevent the spread and what responsibility app developers have to take charge of their users’ sexual health.

Apps’ responsibility for care

“I am convinced apps are accountable to the users they serve,” states dating application and researcher on sexual consent Chris Dietzel. Dietzel believes that apps are legally required to provide care for their users; however, they’re for-profit businesses and not solely responsible for their users. “Other health professionals could be more charitable in their motives,” says Dietzel.

One of them was the medical director who worked for Edmonton’s STI Clinic, Dr. Ameeta Singh. The apps must be doing more to stop STIs spread to every user, whatever their sexuality.

An illustration shows a bunch of hands holding phones using dating apps
App users need more education when it comes to sexual health.

The stakes are very high. The increasing STI rate within Canada and in the United States has resulted in adverse health outcomes, including stillbirths caused by syphilis and doctors like Singh blame apps for being the enablers behind sexually risky sex.

Singh states that the risk of apps is because online dating is a way of meeting. “Usually, users do not know anything about the person they’re dating and their sexuality or the risk of contracting HIV and other STIs. This is a more risky approach,” she says. When someone tests positively for STI, Singh says the applications make it difficult for health officials to perform the tracing of contacts, which is used to treat many infections.

But, some are not in agreement with Singh.

A British Columbia-based preventive health physician Jason Wong says apps allow users to connect with more partners in a hurry; however, it doesn’t indicate that the apps are boosting STI transmission.

Dietzel co-authored a 2019 study looking at the literature regarding risks associated with dating appsHe found no conclusive evidence suggesting that using apps increases the risk of contracting an STI.

LGBTQ+ dating apps lead the way

In terms of STI preventative measures, DaddyHunt general manager Casey Crawford states that apps targeted at LGBTQ and communities of color are ahead of their homosexual counterparts. “We’re doing a far better job than the more heterosexual apps regarding the ability to let people know about their practices for testing and creating public service announcements to inform people,” he says.

Also, Jen Hecht, senior director of Building Healthy Online Communities (BHOC), agrees. She claims that apps specifically designed for users of queer backgrounds are the pioneers in STI risk reduction features, especially those living with HIV. She collaborates with most queer-oriented dating apps to create strategies for preventing STIs. She says that apps are driving the movement to make it more commonplace for people to disclose health information.

A hand is holding a phone, you can see them swiping left/right on a dating app
Apps allow people to find more partners easily, but it doesn’t mean the apps are increasing STI transmission.

Why is queerness so prevalent? “One major reason is that there are generations of gay males who have suffered through the AIDS epidemic. It was a traumatic experience; however, it was also a part of their identity.” Hecht says. Hecht, “It’s become commonplace in the world of queer people to discuss the information.”

The profile information in gay-friendly dating apps such as Adam4Adam, DaddyHunt, Grindr and GROWLr can include:

• HIV status

• when you’ll take your test and test reminders in the app.

• If HIV positive, check if the virus is not detectable in your blood

• If HIV negative, you must decide if you are HIV positive or whether PrEP (HIV treatment drugs)

• Preference for condoms, preference for condom use, etc.

Straight dating apps lag behind

While straight dating apps generally lack the above features. The only app that is in tune with the work of BHOC is Tinder. But, Hecht says Tinder profiles are a bit spartan and do not allow providing information on STI risk, and tends to make it more difficult to screen.

Dietzel believes that the more strict character of gay dating apps could be a problem: “The apps targeted at hetero-sexuals tend to be heterosexual marriage norms family and what’s expected of a relationship. Additionally, the apps for queer people are more open about the sexuality of their users.”

Two weeks later, the straight-minded app for dating, Bumble, Tinder, OkCupid and eHarmony, didn’t respond to my interview request.

The way forward

A common theme that parties can be on the same page is that users require more information. Wong demands “access to an appropriate, non-stigmatizing sexual wellness information … our messages must be sexually positive and encouraging.” One of those messages is regular screening for STIs even if you don’t have symptoms.

TakeMeHome is a house STI testing kit that BHOC introduced in March 2020. Since then, it has been promoted by gay dating apps to be a COVID-safe testing alternative. The public health department currently covers the test only in certain states in the U.S. Hecht hopes other states will adopt it.

For the straight-oriented apps, Crawford says, “They ought to at the very least be informing their users.”

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