Can iPhones Help Millennials Practice Safer Sex?


As sexually transmitted disease awareness and openness is increasing in the U.S., so too are the number of smartphone apps trying to help you have safer sex. Here, I'll review two apps that are trying to help people have safer sex practices.

With 19 million new STD infections occurring in the U.S. every year, of which nearly half are among 15-24 year olds, learning safe sex practices is essential for people of all ages. As millennials are the most tech-savvy, it's only logical for them to be using new apps to help. Or so you would think. 

After downloading and using the MedXCom Patient and iCondom apps, both free from the iPhone App Store, I've realized that apps will never replace the value of a sex-ed course in middle and high school, or a discussion with your parents or primary care provider.

MedXCom Patient advertizes itself as a way to promote safe sex in two ways: 1) It will remind you to get regular STD testing, and 2) It can help "prove" to a potential sexual partner that you are clean by showing them your STD results on the app. If they also have the app, you can "bump" your phones to exchange your STD status.

While this may sound beneficial, it is not practical in real-life settings. Just imagine you're at a party and you start chatting up a cute guy. He seems cool and you're both into each other. One thing leads to the next and you think: "is he clean?" Now is not exactly the right time to show him your STD status on your phone or pause for a minute to bump phones to exchange health info.

Instead, you have to go back to the basics: 1) have him wear a condom. No condom, no oral/anal/vaginal sex. 2) If you want to be an adult about it, talk about your STD status. Granted, you never know if he's telling the truth or even knows his STD status, but it at least shows maturity and the importance you put in having safe sex.

Still, there are some other benefits to using MedXCom Patient. The app also stores all your medical history in one convenient location, including medications you're taking, medical conditions, past surgeries, test results, your doctor's information, appointments, allergies, emergency contact information, and more. It can give you appointment or medication reminders and can be a handy tool to stay in contact with your doctor, but only if he/she also has the provider version of the app. This is beneficial, whether you're young or old, so you can easily access your information when at a medical appointment or at the emergency room. From my experience as a provider and patient, people do forget important information often.

Now, about that condom … It is unsafe to store your condom(s) in your wallet or purse, so a fresh one is always safest. Being in a new part of town or a different state or country, you might not know where to get one. That's where iCondom comes in. It's a free app that populates a map of your current location with places that sell condoms or give condoms away for free near you. MTV's Staying Alive project is behind it, trying to create the "world's largest map of condom distribution" by having users upload and rate condom distributors near them.

Positives: If you need to buy a condom and are in a new neighborhood, this app is quick and helpful. It also shows you free locations that you wouldn't know of unless you were desperate and would have to do a couple online searches. When testing this app, two of the three places listed near me did offer free condoms (and I made comments of my findings and was able to give them ratings using the app). 

Negatives: You can't search a neighborhood you're not physically in, only the one around your current location. The opening days/hours and phone numbers of the locations aren't included unless a user inputs them. I searched my area in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and only free condom locations popped up, despite the fact that there are plenty of drug stores, grocery stores, and delis that sell them. There are also many bugs: many page loading issues requiring multiple attempts, posting a rating or comment takes at least 5 tries (up to 13) to "connect" even when using a very good internet connection, and, after posting, it brings you back to my iPhone home screen instead of back to the iCondom map or comment page where you just posted. 

Because the app relies on user-generated data, it will only become more valuable as it gets more active users. Now, iCondom is just pre-populated with free condom locations inputted from websites like the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene's Get Some NYC Condom. Thus, it is much easier to just go to the nearest grocery store, deli, or drug store. And, if you're in a new place, just ask a stranger. It might only put a smile on their face.