Thirty-four-year old professional organizer Christina Ralph discovered dating apps a couple of years ago when she upgraded her phone.
“The first one I tried was called Coffee and Bagels, where you could only get one match per day,” said Ralph, who also works part-time at the Long Beach Department of Rehabilitation. She struck up a couple of brief relationships using the app Plenty of Fish, and says that while nothing really panned out, overall dating apps are beneficial for single adults like herself.
“I like the fact that you can kind of narrow the search for the type of person you’re really looking for,” said Ralph. “It’s easier than trying to go out and meet somebody at a grocery store or someplace out in the world like people used to do. Most people are so busy they don’t have a lot of time to spend out and about so this is a lot more helpful.”
Ralph is just one of millions of milliennials in the U.S. who use dating apps. About 20 percent of relationships start online, with 24 percent of teens saying they began a relationship with someone they met over the Internet.
Public health officials, however, are sounding a more cautious note when it comes to dating apps. Some are blaming the technology for a recent increase in Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs).
Health departments nationwide are reporting a spike in patients with STIs who say they met their sexual partner online or through a mobile dating app. In the state of Rhode Island, for example, cases of gonorrhea have gone up 30 percent, while HIV cases jumped 33 percent.
The City of Long Beach has seen similarly troubling numbers. According to the Long Beach Health Department, rates for chlamydia have gone up 6 percent from 2013 to 2014, while rates for primary and secondary syphilis have gone up 11 percent in the same period.
And while overall rates of STI infection are lower in Long Beach than the rest of the county, officials are worried.
“It is a little concerning,” said Ismael Morales, director of Health and Wellness Services at the LGBTQ Center in Long Beach. “What I find alarming is that people aren’t getting tested regularly.”
Dr. Mitchell Kushner, city health officer for the Long Beach Health Department, says dating apps are “definitely a factor” in the increase in STIs.
“What we’ve been able to find is that with the increase in the number of dating apps there is a correlation with hookups and an increase in syphilis,” said Kushner, who advises individuals who use dating apps to be more prudent in asking questions with the people they are meeting and planning to hook up with.
“When people hook up, they don’t realize that their partner might have syphilis or gonorrhea,” said Kushner. “They don’t realize that syphilis is easier to transmit than HIV and that you can get infected by oral contact.”
Besides advising people to use condoms and decreasing their number of sexual contacts, Kushner says the local Health Department is also urging local providers to ask their patients about their sexual history.
“Our concern is people don’t have access to our sites or don’t have access to providers that are testing them because they’re not asking the right questions,” said Kushner.
Ralph says that she saves questions about her partner’s sexual history for when she meets them in person.
“I find if I start talking about things like that over the Internet or E-Mail, then it tends to attract the guys who are looking for hookups,” she explained, “so I try and wait to meet somebody in person before I start talking about things like that.”
Ralph sees the spike in STIs less as a matter of the dangers of technology and more as a matter of personal responsibility.
“People are going to do what they want to do regardless if they’re using a dating app or they’re going to a bar to meet up with somebody,” said Ralph. “STIs have been running rampant for hundreds of years, so I don’t think it’s fair to blame online dating or dating apps for the increase. I think it’s more of a matter of having people use protection more and teaching sex education at a younger age.”
Ralph believes one way to stop the spread of STIs is to have dating sites get rid of the search query for casual sex.
“If people want casual sex, they can go to their local bar and find someone,” said Ralph. “Getting rid of the casual sex query won’t stop people from hooking up, but it might make people take the time to get to know someone before deciding whether or not to sleep with them.”
The LGBTQ Center will be holding its annual AIDS Ride Fundraiser in partnership with St. Mary Medical Center on November 15 in order to raise money for HIV and AIDS services in Long Beach. Organizers say the funds will be split between the two agencies, with half going to support the center, and the other half to support treatment and nutritional services for people infected with HIV.