04/24/2017 11:03 EDT | Updated 04/24/2017 11:03 EDT

Are Dating Apps Behind A Recent Rise In Sexual Diseases?

When public health officials see a rise in infections, finding the cause is one of the first priorities. In some cases, such as a foodborne outbreak, the process is relatively straightforward. The item or location is identified, a recall or closure is enacted, and the situation eventually is brought under control. But sometimes, the search can be tricky at best, especially when the problem is behavioural in nature.

couple taking selfie bed

(Photo: Sneksy via Getty Images)

One of the most delicate dilemmas happens to be sexually transmitted infections, or STIs. In Canada and many other countries around the world, the period between 2010 and 2013 saw a significant spike in the number of cases. Figuring out why familiar names such as chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis continue to rise has presented a rather difficult burden. After all, exploring the most intimate aspects of an individual's life is by no means easy.

Perhaps for this reason, one popular theory for the troubles has focused not on individuals, but on their phones. Several apps, such as Tinder and Grindr, have gained popularity over the last few years. They are designed to facilitate meeting of individuals with similar characteristics. Yet, many utilize the programs to find casual sexual partners. This specific purpose has led some researchers to believe digital dating may be the underlying reason for the rise in cases.

This allegation, while reasonable in appearance, does not come without criticism. Just last year, a study exploring over 26,000 individuals revealed those most likely to use these apps -- millennials -- are less sexually active than people from older generations. Not to mention that officials examining pockets of diseases have revealed the situation is more complex than a simple swipe on the phone. Yet, without some concrete evidence, there can be no official verdict on the accusation.

The dating app may not be as guilty as one might expect.

That may soon change thanks to a group of U.K. researchers hoping to find out whether online dating is the reason for the rise in STIs. Their work provides a population-based examination of sexual activities in the digital era. The results suggest a link between online human connections and infection may exist, but the dating app may not be as guilty as one might expect.

The team took advantage of a national survey conducted between 2010 and 2012 called Natsal, or the National Surveys of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles. Over 15,000 people participated in this assessment of sexual behaviour, giving this particular effort significant statistical strength. Although many of the questions were irrelevant for the authors of the current study, one very important question acted as the base for their work: "Have you used the Internet to find a sexual partner in the past 12 months?"

The responses were rather surprising. Even at this early stage in digital dating popularity, nearly one in five men and one in 10 women had used the Internet for casual sex. Even more revealing was the age of the majority of users. They were not millennials, but rather Generation X.

tinder photo

(Photo: Bloomberg via Getty Images)

At this point, the authors began to look deeper to find out if risky behaviour could be linked to online romance. As expected, people who used the Internet were more likely to have multiple partners. In addition, many of these individuals were less likely to use barrier protection. Finally, and to some extent ironically, these individuals had concerns about acquiring an infection as a result of their activities.

This rather strange combination of unsafe sex and worry led the researchers to wonder whether online dating led to more visits to sexual health clinics. However, only HIV testing was sought out more frequently. There appeared to be less concern for the other diseases.

While the likelihood of an STI may not be greater, the risk is ever present.

The final stage involved examining whether there was any connection between Internet connections and the appearance of an STI. Although the numbers of individuals with STI tests were much smaller in terms of the overall population -- about one-tenth of the total survey -- there was a slight increase in the number of STIs seen. However, this was only in men; women had an equal chance of infection whether they used the Internet or not.

Overall, the results show Internet dating may have contributed slightly to the rise in STIs. But they cannot explain the significant rise in infections over the same time period. Other risk factors certainly are involved. Unfortunately, this means having to go even deeper into behaviour to find out what is really leading to the spread.

There is, however, one very strong recommendation this study offers to people choosing to use Tinder or other dating apps to find sexual encounters. Always have barrier protection on hand. While the likelihood of an STI may not be greater, the risk is ever present. Besides, being cautious even when you're being casual can ensure you won't need to remove your profile while you deal with an unwanted microbial mate.

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