University of South Florida professor Eric Buhi spent years researching the sexual risks to young people who met through the Internet. But as the results came in, he began to see it wasn't the threat that people thought it was.
Surveys of local university students showed him that in relationships, the Internet may be like a telephone, "just another mechanism for meeting people," he said.
And that led to his latest study of how digital technology can help young people make better choices.
He and a group of student helpers are using USF to pilot test their "BtC" campaign.
They recently handed out fliers and T-shirts and wrote messages in chalk on the sidewalk near the Marshall Student Center asking students to "Think… Beyond the Condom" and text 99222.
They're trying to call attention to alternative methods of birth control through mobile phone text messages, Facebook and a Web page.
Buhi said it's the first research study he knows of that uses text messaging and other social media to deliver information about contraceptives to college students.
"Social media is so embraced by young people, and we're trying to use that technology to promote things that work in public health," he said.
Buhi, an assistant professor in USF's College of Public Health, has spent his research career studying the sexual health and behavior of young people, focusing largely on the Internet and the threats it may, or may not, pose.
"Young people are there every day living their lives on Facebook and other places," he said. "We have a good idea of what dating is, as researchers, but we don't really understand the online context and how relationships are formed there."
Last month, Buhi received the Guttmacher Institute's Darroch Award, which recognizes emerging leaders in sexual and reproductive health research. It comes with a $2,500 award. Guttmacher is a nonprofit group that promotes research into reproductive health and rights.
Guttmacher's Lawrence Finer said that Buhi was a national leader in research on the reproductive health and behavior of young people.
One study, to be published in December in the journal Sexually Transmitted Diseases, is based on surveys of more than 2,000 USF and the University of Florida students.
The students were asked about the number of sexual partners they have had and if they had contracted a sexually transmitted disease or become unintentionally pregnant.
And they were divided into three categories based on whether they had met their sexual partners offline only, online only or both offline and online.
The major question was: "Is the Internet a risky environment for young people?" said Buhi, one of several researchers on the project.
And the answer was, apparently not.
The students who had met their partners exclusively online seemed to be at no greater risk than the other two groups.
The students with the worst "sexual health profile," as Buhi described it, were those who had met their partners both off and online. That, he speculated, could have been the result of the respondents' personal choices, not the technology they used.
So why not use the technology to help young people make better choices, he thought.
"We want to be able to intervene at some time, especially online, to promote positive sexual health," he said.
That's the idea behind the BtC campaign that started last week at USF, which is funded by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.
Guttmacher research shows that 64 percent of pregnancies among women between the ages of 20 and 24 are unintended.
The goal of the BtC project is to show young women that there are more reliable forms of birth control than condoms and the pill. Known generally as LARCs, long-acting, reversible contraceptives, they include the IUD, vaginal rings and patches.
"Our team got really creative" planning the project, Buhi said.
It starts with mobile text messages for students who text in a request for information. The question-and-answer-form series of texts briefly explains the project and elicits information from the students concerning the type of birth control they use.
Then it leads them to a website where they can get more information about several LARC methods, including videos recorded on campus, and find local providers.
Master's student Natalie Rella developed the script about the IUD, working with faculty and other students. And she built the database of LARC providers. "This project is very tech-savvy, very innovative," she said.
Not only are Buhi and his research team gathering information, they're also able to track the participants' responses as they move through the texts to the videos and the provider database.
"It is really exciting," said Rella, who handed out fliers and talked to students about the project on campus last week.
"It's exciting especially when you see them with their phones and texting in right away."