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UTEP Uses Social Media to Promote Sexual Health

 Lindsey Anderson, El Paso Times


A group of students and their professor are taking a new approach to promoting sexual health and combating substance abuse at the University of Texas at El Paso: social media.

UTEP Assistant Professor Thenral Mangadu works in public health, particularly sexual health.

Last year, she helped UTEP create a public health approach to sexual assault. Now, she’s tackling substance abuse and reproductive health among college students with the help of Facebook, Twitter, memes and blogs.

“We have to cater to our demographics, and they use social media a lot,” Mangadu said. “Just with the click, you can reach thousands.”

It’s serious business: About half of the 20 million new sexually transmitted diseases each year occur in young people age 15 to 24, according to the Centers for Disease Control. As many as one in four women will be victims of rape or attempted rape while in college. And of the 60 percent of college students who drink, about two-thirds binge drink.

To change those numbers, Mangadu turns to the students themselves.

Twenty UTEP students have received 20 hours of training on substance abuse or reproductive health. Another group of about 50 peer educators will launch soon to address sexual assault.

The paid peer educators lead in-person workshops for their fellow classmates, including a freshman presentation called “Miners in the Bedroom: Having the Talk.” But they also write blog posts, share Facebook posts and brainstorm cartoons, hashtags and memes – all centered around topics like safe sex, STDs, HIV/AIDS, where to get free condoms and how to get substance abuse counseling.

“Peer education is very powerful in public health because they’re hearing it from someone in their network, someone like themselves,” Mangadu said. “That, we believe, will increase the impact of social media, because they know what’s going on in their networks.”

If a peer educators shares a social media post on STDs, say, that information reaches their friends and classmates, who are likely struggling with similar issues.

“Information is spreading so fast, so if we are helping spread useful and factual information, then we’re contributing,” peer educator and UTEP senior Jovana Nieto said.

“We know the internet is used every second of the day; we’re always on our phones, so the internet is a way for us to spread our information even further.”

Social media allows for real-time metrics, like how many times a post shared, liked and viewed. It’s also a powerful form of nonverbal communication, said master’s student Alexandra Alba, who supervises the peer educators. 

“Even during our workshops we see that sometimes it’s difficult for students to feel comfortable talking about the topic,” Alba said. “We feel that it’s just important that we’re able to reach out to students through social media, because that might be a more comfortable setting for them.”

An approachable setting is especially crucial in their Hispanic culture, where families don’t always discuss sexual health, Alba and Nieto said.

“We might be the only exposure people get their entire life on topics regarding sexual health,” Nieto said.

Alba points to the higher rate of sexually transmitted diseases among minorities, according to the CDC.

“It’s important that we discuss not only with our peers but our friends and family about the topic,” she said.

Local culture also influences risks and behavior, like gender norms, Mangadu said.

“What is OK for a man, what is OK for a woman – those play a huge role in sexual risk,” she said. “There is stigma to HIV or talking openly about sexual health and reproductive health. How can we address those if individuals are not going to openly talk about these issues? … Our students, they’re going to be the change agents.”

​The initiatives received funding from the Department of Justice Office on Violence Against Women, the The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the Paso Del Norte Health Foundation.


Lindsey Anderson may be reached at 915 546-6345;; @l_m_anderson on Twitter.