His group, the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, has put up billboards and bus ads showing silhouettes of people kissing with the names of dating apps (Tinder and Grindr) and STDs, in the hopes of sending the message that encounters originating online can lead to infections.
Tinder responded with a cease-and-desist order, but settled with the foundation in January 2016 after agreeing to add a health safety section to its website.
In 2015, health officials in Rhode Island released data showing a dramatic spike in cases of syphilis (79 percent), gonorrhea (30 percent), and HIV (33 percent) in the previous year.
In the past, when a person was diagnosed with a serious STD, a public health official would call or meet with his or her sexual partners to talk about getting tested and on potential treatment.
But with more anonymous sexual encounters, epidemiologists may not be able to track down people’s partners and notify them that they might have an STD, Auerbach said.
As health experts learn more about the links between high-risk behavior enabled by dating apps and STD outbreaks, they’re finding that apps make the work of tracking cases harder to do.
In particular, according to John Auerbach, president and CEO of the public health nonprofit the Trust for America’s Health, the anonymous encounters happening via apps make it harder to do contact tracing, a key epidemiological process in understanding an outbreak.
That means people who are drawn to apps may just be more sexually active than non-users, said lead study author Justin Lehmiller, a sex and psychology researcher with Ball State University.
“It may not be that the technology is increasing the risk, but rather there’s this selection effect for people who are more sexually active who tend to use the apps,” he explained.
And while some of the new cases could be attributed to better testing, officials for the first time said STD rates were rising because of certain high-risk behaviors, including using online dating sites “to arrange casual and often anonymous sexual encounters.” Since then, the trend for several STDs nationwide has only gotten worse: According to a September report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were more than 2 million cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis reported in the United States in 2016 — the highest cumulative number ever recorded.
“Not only are we at an all-time high,” Gail Bolan, the director of the division of STD prevention at the CDC, told me, “but we’re starting to see increases in all kind of communities.” There are a few reasons cases of chlamydia, gonorrhea, and syphilis are on the rise.
“I don’t think they feel it’s their responsibility," Weinstein said.
He and others would like to see online networks engaged in data collection on STDs, partner notification, condom promotion, and distributing information about self-testing and STDs.
“In Wyoming there are still no gay bars, but the internet makes it much easier for people to find each other.” But the data we have only demonstrates a correlation between online dating and STDs — not causation.