Meningitis outbreak may be connected to Grindr

5/30/2013 10:34:00 AM
Here's a pointer to Mark Joseph Stern's article on Slate, suggesting that the widespread use of Grindr and similar apps may have facilitated the recent meningitis cluster spreading among gay men in New York City. This is an interesting topic to me, since I conducted a study last year showing that the appearance of Grindr was associated with a rise in HIV risk factors among gay men in New York City. Mine was the second study on the health effects of Grindr, though there are now several studies underway, in New York and California.

Despite my own research results, I find the causal claim in Stern's article somewhat dubious. (And while I attempted a causal inference design in my own study, I'm careful to note that it is still just a correlation, due to potential weaknesses in the data). One problem with pointing out that all of the gay men who got meningitis had used an app like Grindr or Adam4Adam is that basically all gay men have used one of those apps. For reference, Grindr is an iphone app that lets you see profiles of local gay men who are also currently on Grindr, and send instant text messages and pictures. Unlike other dating websites where you input your geographic area, Grindr automatically uses your phone's location to connect you with a list of other users in the same area, in order of how close they are. That is, Grindr is less about user profiles and personality matching, more about finding people nearby. And it is exclusively for gay and bisexual men.

As of June 2012, there were about 1.6 million distinct active Grindr profiles, corresponding to about 1 for every 4 gay and bisexual men--a truly astonishing level of market saturation given that Grindr was only introduced in 2009. The period since Grindr's debut in March 2009 has wittnessed a variety of bad developments in gay and bisexual men's sexual health. Relative to heterosexual men over the same period, men who have sex with men (MSM) have seen upticks in HIV infection rates, as well as infection rates for other sexually transmitted diseases like syphilis, which could be due to an increase in the propensity for unprotected anal sex over the same period. My working hypothesis is that the rise of geo-social networking apps like Grindr has been responsible for this increase in the propensity for risky sexual behaviors, by increasing the frequency of sexual encounters.

It is important to clarify the nature of the risk: gay men have, if anything, increased the proportion of the time they used condoms; however, it is possible, though as yet still unproven (we lack good enough data), that an increase in frequency of sex has more than offset the increase in condom use, so that overal propensity for unprotected sex has actually increased. And it is possible that the rise of apps like Grindr has enabled this increase in sexual encounters.

But I have several reservations about some of the claims made in the article on slate. First, the characterization of Grindr as a "hookup app" is factually incorrect. Grindr is an extremely mainstream gay social networking app, and studies show that "hookups" are not the primary reason most Grindr users are on the app--only 27% use Grindr specifically to find "hookup" or find sex partners. Second, I simply don't see enough evidence to blame Grindr and others for the meningitis outbreak, since meningitis isn't a sexually transmitted disease--the infection can be spread through casual contact, not just sex. Bars and clubs are more condusive to casual contact than the virtual world of Grindr and online dating. To the extent that Grindr and gay bars are actually substitutes, we might even expect Grindr to reduce meningitis infection rates.