United Nations research has found the growing use of mobile dating apps by young gay men is a major factor in a new HIV epidemic among teenagers in Asia, the Guardian can reveal.
The report uncovered a surge of HIV infections among 10-19 years olds in the Asia-Pacific region, where more than half of the world’s 1.2 billion adolescents live.
The two-year study found that smartphone dating apps have expanded the options for spontaneous casual sex as never before.
The epidemic is fastest growing amongst men who have sex with men. Other groups include those who are sexually exploited by or engaged in sex work, people who inject drugs, and young transgender people.
“Young gay men themselves have consistently told us that they are now using mobile dating apps to meet up for sex, and are having more casual sex with more people as a result. We know that this kind of risky behaviour increases the spread of HIV,” said Wing-Sie Cheng, HIV/Aids adviser for Unicef in east Asia and the Pacific.
“We are therefore convinced that there is a link, and that we need to work better with mobile app providers to share information about HIV and protect the health of adolescents.”
The previously unreported epidemic threatens the UN’s goal to end the global Aids crisis by 2030, which appeared achievable after a sharp drop in Africa during the past 15 years.
Adolescents are also more likely to die of Aids-related deaths, researchers from Unicef and UNAIDS found, as they are less inclined to seek treatment, fearing they will be stigmatised or forced to expose their sexuality to their family or the authorities. In many countries in the region, under-18s cannot get an HIV test without parental consent.
While global HIV infections are falling, the number of adolescents aged 10-19 officially living with HIV in Asia and the Pacific has grown to more than 220,000, with the unofficial number expected to be much higher, Unicef says. Fewer than half of them are receiving treatment and deaths have risen nearly every year for a decade.
An HIV-positive Filipino man aged 30, speaking on condition of anonymity to protect himself from abuse, said it was hard to find sex for a gay teenager, bullied at school and closed off from the adult-only gay bars.
At university, the introduction of internet dating — chat rooms and online forums — allowed him to find more sexual partners his age. He would chat with men and agree to rent a room for a few hours in the capital.
“If I write down all the people I had sex with in Manila, I can probably write one to five people for each stop of the metro,” he said.
Smartphones and mobile dating revolutionised his sex life. Whereas internet dating involved a laborious process of arranging a meeting up, dating apps are location-based, allowing users to scan their surroundings for others.
“Even if you’re still in school and you feel the need to have sex, you just open Grindr,” he said. “You don’t even have to talk to them. People just send you naked photos or photos of their cocks. If you’re fine with them, you just go and have sex.”
The immediacy of the sex, organised in minutes, made condom use less likely, he said. “I did use condoms. But it was not consistent. You don’t want to lose the momentum.”
Despite his promiscuous mobile dating years, the Filipino man’s HIV test returned negative and he entered into a long-term relationship. But two years later he contracted the virus from his boyfriend who was secretly cheating on him by using mobile dating apps.
In the Philippines, new HIV infections among teenagers have doubled in four years. In Bangkok, young gay men now have a one in three chance of HIV infection.
And eighteen countries across the Asia-Pacific region criminalise against same-sex relationships — which UNAIDS says causes gay men to avoid life-saving HIV services.
A separate study last year found that men who have sex with men using dating apps are at greater risk of contracting gonorrhoea and chlamydia than those who meet in-person or on the internet.
Wing-Sie, the Unicef adviser, said that dating apps create networks of men, in which infections rapidly spread among users. “Mobile dating apps essentially hook you up to a central network.”
She said the study looked at observational trends around the region reported by United Nations officers and local community workers who said their HIV strategy urgently needed to adapt to the explosion of mobile dating apps. “HIV is a covert issue, it is very hidden. So data is not available.”
She said researchers found “that with the rise of these apps, the probability and risk of infection will increase multifold because it makes it so much easier for them to date other guys and hook up for sex,” she said.
A spokesman from Grindr, used in 196 countries worldwide with 1 million active users every minute, said it has a minimum age requirement of 18. “As the world’s largest gay platform, we take matters of sexual health very seriously,” the spokesman said, adding that Grindr runs in-app announcements encouraging testing at local clinics.
David S Novak, senior health strategist at Online Buddies, the parent company of the dating app Jack’d, directed the Guardian to its ManHunt Cares project, which provides health resources to its users. In 2009, the company also set up a research institute focusing on gay sexual health.
Other major dating app companies Tinder, Blued and Growlr did not respond to requests for comment.
The UN report says these apps can become vital conduits promoting sexual health, including HIV messaging and testing, and references a 2014 World Aids Day project by the Chinese gay dating app Blued where a red ribbon was added next to every user’s profile picture, linking to details of nearby testing centres.
Wing-Sie said Unicef will approach mobile dating app companies in the coming months for a “collaborative effort” and so the world body might collect data to further investigate the impact of mobile dating.
Based in Bangkok, Jesse Krisintu has been working with charities trying to persuade young people to get tested for HIV through tactics such as pop-up advertisements on dating apps. He said the project did not work.
“It’s their business. If they advertise too much about HIV/Aids services there, do you think people are going to go online?” he said.
He said that one project involving pop-ups offered discounts on HIV tests but that very few were claimed and that the analytics shows most users immediately closed the pop-up advert.
“The application is where the key population is but no one is going to read the pop-up because the purpose of people going to those apps to find sex, not to find knowledge. The results are not that favourable,” he said. “People just close it.”
The UN is now also advocating for comprehensive sex education — beyond a simple explanation of the sex organs — and for reducing the age at which adolescents can take an HIV test without parental consent.
AIDS is already the leading cause of death for adolescents in Africa and the second leading cause of death among adolescents globally, tripling over the past 15 years and mostly as a result of mother-to-child transmission. However, this new breed of epidemic found in Asia-Pacific could be replicated elsewhere, public health officials warn.
“There is a risk of not being able to eliminate Aids at all,” Wing-Sie said. “This is the new frontier of Aids to tackle right now. The world can never end Aids if this issue is not controlled.”