The Internet is playing an increasing role in the sex lives of some young people, according to findings from an on-line survey conducted in 2000.1 Respondents aged 18-24 who had ever met a partner through the Internet reported having found an average of nearly 10 partners that way, including seven in the last year alone. Older men and women, by contrast, said that they had met 14 partners on-line, six of them in the previous year. Young participants were more willing than older ones to seek potential partners in chat rooms, as well as to exchange addresses with individuals they met on-line.
Respondents to the anonymous survey were recruited through chat rooms, electronic bulletin boards and list serves. Although the survey was intended to include only individuals aged 18 and older, the investigators acknowledge that it is impossible to verify participants' ages. The analyses are based on a total of 4,507 men and women, of whom 1,234 said they were 18-24 years old. Half of the overall sample, including 495 (40%) of these young adults, reported ever having had sex with a partner they had met on-line.
Young adults who had found a partner on the Internet were more likely than their peers who had not to be male (67% vs. 57%), and they reported an earlier age at first sex (16.6 vs. 17.1 years). Half of the former group and one-third of the latter had been tested for HIV or another sexually transmitted disease (STD); 10% and 6%, respectively, had had an STD. Respondents aged 18-24 who had found partners on-line had met an average of 15 partners by other means, including four in the past year; by contrast, those who had not met any partners through the Internet had had six partners, two of them in the past year.
When asked specifically about partners they had met through venues other than the Internet, 31% of young adults who had found partners on-line reported having had a same-sex partner, 46% said they had engaged in anal sex in the past year and 14% reported having met a partner in a bar; significantly smaller proportions of other 18-24-year-olds reported these behaviors (6%, 24% and 9%, respectively). However, those who had found partners on-line were more likely than others to have used a condom the last time they had anal or vaginal sex (47% vs. 38%) and were more open to visiting a chat room devoted to risk reduction (32% vs. 26%). Reports of having had sex while drunk or high, discussed HIV or other STDs with partners, or used condoms during oral sex were similar in the two groups.
Comparisons between young adults and older respondents who had ever found a partner on-line revealed significant differences in all background factors studied: Participants in the younger group were less likely to be male (67% vs. 77%) and white (76% vs. 86%), and they reported an earlier age at first sex than older respondents (16.6 vs. 17.1 years). They also were less likely to have been tested for or to have had an STD.
Sexual behaviors differed by respondents' age, and results varied somewhat depending on how they had met their partners. Young adults had found significantly fewer partners off-line than had older respondents (15 vs. 43), and they reported somewhat less risky behavior: They less often reported having had same-sex activity, engaged in anal sex and met a partner in a bar; they more frequently said that they had used a condom the last time they had anal or vaginal sex.
The reported number of partners found on-line was essentially the same for young adults and older respondents. Notably, though, 18-24-year-olds had met the majority of these partners (seven of 10) in the past year, whereas older respondents had met fewer than half (six of 14) that recently. As in the previous set of comparisons, the proportions reporting same-sex relations and anal intercourse were lower among those aged 18-24 than among older respondents, but the two groups no longer differed in their reports of condom use at last anal or vaginal sex. Young adults were less likely than older respondents to have discussed HIV or other STDs with partners (64-65% vs. 68-76%).
A final set of comparisons between 18-24-year-olds and older respondents who had ever met a partner on-line examined behaviors related to safety issues other than sexual risk. According to these results, young adults were more likely than older respondents to use chat rooms (69% vs. 63%) and less likely to use Internet dating services (1% vs. 3%). Before actually meeting a new contact, young adults were more likely than older men and women to exchange addresses with the person (45% vs. 37%).
Significantly higher proportions of 18-24-year-olds than of older survey participants reported that their first meeting with a partner they had met on-line took place in the partner's home, a park or another outdoor place, or a restroom; younger people were less likely than others to say that condoms were available at the place where they last had a sexual encounter. In both age-groups, about two-thirds of respondents said that partners they had met through the Internet had lied about their age, and two in five said that such partners had lied about their marital status.
In the researchers' view, by revealing the changing profile of those who have found partners on-line, the survey results suggest that the Internet is becoming "more demographically representative," a trend that "bears watching ...[by] epidemiologists studying STDs." Furthermore, the finding that recent contacts make up the majority of all those initiated on-line "suggests that the Internet may be growing in its importance to young adults' sex lives." Finally, young people's relative willingness to use chat rooms and exchange identifying information with potential partners suggests that on-line venues may give them "a (potentially false) sense of security" that could increase their vulnerability to unsafe situations.
While acknowledging the limitations of their survey--particularly, the potential for deliberate misreporting--the investigators note that the consistency of their results with those of previous research supports the validity of their findings. They conclude that there exists "an urgent need for online STD/HIV prevention interventions targeting young adults." --D. Hollander
1. McFarlane M, Bull SS and Rietmeijer CA, Young adults on the Internet: risk behaviors for sexually transmitted diseases and HIV, Journal of Adolescent Health, 2002, 31(1):11-16.