Computer-based HIV prevention helps at-risk teens

Delinquent and at-risk teens who complete a brief computer-based program designed to reduce risky sexual behaviors are less likely to have sex and more likely to have sex with fewer partners, after completing the program, a new study shows.

“For youths who are outside mainstream schools and who may respond poorly to didactic instruction, computers are a viable way to deliver prevention information and promote skill development,” Dr. Marguerita Lightfoot and her colleagues from the Center for Community Health at the University of California, Los Angeles conclude.

Delinquent young people have sex earlier and with more partners than their law-abiding peers, which make HIV prevention efforts particularly important for them, Lightfoot and her team note in the American Journal of Public Health. The researchers investigated whether a program proven to be effective in helping teens and adults to use condoms more frequently, Project LIGHT (Living in Good Health Together), would work for at-risk teens via computer.

The researchers randomly assigned 133 students at three alternative education schools to the computerized version of Project LIGHT, which lasted an hour and a half; the same intervention in small, in-person groups; or a “control” group that received no HIV prevention counseling.

When the researchers followed-up with the study participants 3 months later, they found that those in the computer-based intervention group were significantly less likely to have had sex than those who participated in the small groups.

The computer group had fewer partners than the individuals in the control group, while they tended to have unprotected sex less frequently after completing the intervention. However, there was an increase in the tendency to have unprotected sex over time in the control- and small-group participants.

While some young people may need in-person therapy to help them avoid risky behavior, Lightfoot and her colleagues add, the current study shows that computer-based interventions may also be effective for many at-risk kids.

Such programs also are cost effective and easy to establish, they point out, and interactive versions “may help youths learn skills to prevent HIV infection and instill in these youths the self-efficacy to apply these new skills.”

SOURCE: American Journal of Public Health, June 2007.

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