Editor’s Note: This posting summarizes the results of our recent new media client survey.  The full report, Philadelphia Story: In Search of the Digital Divide, is now available online.

Here at ActionAIDS in Philadelphia, we are taking a close look at howwe use new media to advance our work towards creating an AIDS-free generation.  How can we use new media tools to support retention in HIV care, medication adherence, and reduce the risk of secondary infections for the approximately 2,500 clients we serve every year in the greater Philadelphia area?

Almost 80 percent of our clients live on incomes below the Federal Poverty Guideline. Many struggle with homelessness, drug and alcohol addiction, and behavioral health issues. One might assume they are also on the far side of the “digital divide.”

Digital media access is a significant issue in the HIV community.  About a week ago, theAIDS.gov blog featured a discussion of a recently released study on mobile app usage by smartphone users.  That report is certainly of interest – one finding is that over half of the time spent on digital media occurs on mobile apps.  But how relevant are these findings to our clients, many of whom may not have smartphones?

The ActionAIDS New Media Survey Project

Our new media project examined the question of client Internet access by conducting an inquiry with current clients through one-on-one interviews, a large group discussion, and a smaller focus group. Reflecting our client demographics, 70 percent of our participants were African-American, while 30 percent were white.  Seventy percent were male, and 30 percent were female.  Participants ranged in age from 18 to 64, although they were generally older rather than younger adults (74 percent were over 35).

Seventy-six percent of our participants do access the Internet.  And among those, most (69 percent) access it multiple times each day.  But for those who never go online (33 percent), half identified the reason as not having a computer or smartphone.  The other half expressed no interest or professed not to know about it.

A majority of reported Internet users have access only on a shared computer at home (39 percent) or in a library or other public access point (23 percent).  This could be an inhibiting factor when engaging with new media in the context of HIV.

HIV Stigma Inhibits Digital Media Participation

Significant numbers of our Internet users report engaging with popular social media platforms such as Facebook and Youtube – but rarely if ever in the context of HIV. The younger participants in our focus group (who were also the most active Internet users) perceived social media platforms to be “too public” for them to participate actively and opening as a self-identified as HIV positive.

If access to a computer or a smartphone was a viable option for our clients, the public nature of new media engagement might often leave them as spectators because of privacy concerns.  Half of these clients report having smartphones, so that does pose some potential for texting or other private communications – and use of mobile apps such as PozTracker, which can support treatment adherence.  But overall new media engagement by our clients seems to be significantly constricted.

New Media Strategy for the Future

We are using what we learned to formulate and refine our new media strategy on an ongoing basis. The reality, which we can’t ignore, is that although many of our clients or other at-risk individuals are indeed on the far side of the digital divide, many are not.  This is an important finding, and we will continue to attempt to engage clients and others at-risk through new media, and new media will be one of many tools we use.  In the near term, we believe that new media will be most effective for purposes including fundraising, policy advocacy, and volunteer recruitment and retention.

You can read the full report, Philadelphia Story: In Search of the Digital Divide, on our web site.

We would love to hear other ideas for addressing barriers to client engagement via new media. In particular, is there a way to address the problem of new media accessibility for this very low-income population? And for those that are using new media for other purposes, are there ways to address the privacy concerns about addressing HIV in the new media context?

–David W. Webber, J.D., Senior Development Specialist, ActionAIDS