Rob Stephenson, professor and vice chair for research in the Department of Health Behavior and Biological Sciences at the University of Michigan School of Nursing, admits that he is "obsessed with HIV."
As a health researcher, Stephenson thinks about HIV, and how to prevent it, all the time. But he knows he's an outlier. For most people, staying in school, paying taxes, or even caring for sick pets are just as urgent priorities as STI testing and prevention. This is especially true for gender- and sexual minority youth, who might encounter challenges related to homophobia, racism, or transphobia in addition to daily life struggles.
Marginalized young people already hear a lot of HIV-prevention messages from public health organizations and medical professionals. The scientific community worries that a barrage of messages about HIV and other STIs can actually create, rather than eliminate, stigma around these diseases and their association with gender- and sexual minority youth populations.
Both as a public health scholar and as a gay man himself, Stephenson is invested in solving this puzzle. How can researchers provide valuable sexual health information that is integrated into young people's busy lives, but doesn't increase social stigma?
So what’s The Next Idea?
Stephenson and his research partners knew their approach would have to be accessible to the people they most wanted to reach: 18-24 year-olds. They also knew they weren't equipped to speculate about the specific challenges facing young people today.
The solution? Bring in some 18-24 year-old research partners.
Gage Gillard is a community specialist at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, as well as a member of the Youth Advisory Board for Stephenson's lab. He and a wide-ranging group of young sexual- and gender minority youth from Southeast Michigan were integral to the creation of a new web and mobile app called iCON. iCON integrates sexual health information with a variety of other life skills areas. That means it doesn't just remind young people to get tested, it also provides resources about LGBT dating, legal tools for tackling discrimination, and help with finding jobs.
Gillard says the app will achieve the goal of encouraging HIV testing and prevention because it's aimed at "people just like me. It's all of my friends and people I interact with who are going to use it." He believes that the strength of the work is that it prioritizes "meeting young folks where they are."
Stephenson agrees that the Youth Advisory Board was critical to the success of the project. Initially, the researchers came up with three or four types of information they wanted to include in their app. But the youth wanted a much broader approach. Stephenson recalls that young people were asking questions like "Why aren't you including transportation?" and "Why aren't you telling us how to write a college essay?" Those are topics that now appear in the final version of the app.
Gillard points out that the concerns of trans and queer youth of color have also been included in the iCON project. "Those are voices that are marginalized and often unheard," he says.
Stephenson and Gillard are both optimistic about the future of app-based and holistic sexual health outreach. "It's almost like a recipe book for sorting out your life," says Stephenson. "I wish I'd had one."