A federal study asks underage boys to report their sexual behavior using a mobile app in exchange for up to $275 without requiring permission from their parents.
Researchers at Columbia University funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have spent over eight million dollars of taxpayer dollars on a study that pays gay and transgender minors age 13 and up to track their sexual behavior on an app called MyPEEPS without requiring parental permission. One example of the questions asked for them to report is whether or not they have “condomless anal sex.”
The app has “activities and games” to educate users about HIV prevention and protective sex. Only 13-18-year-old males who are “into other guys” are eligible to participate in the research study, according to a MyPEEPS.
In 2012 and 2013, the NIH spent more than $300,000 developing the app. Since 2016, the federal government has given $7.9 million to researchers to study the data collected from the app, according to a government spending database.
Researchers at Columbia University were granted another $341,522 to study transgender teenagers using MyPEEPS in 2022.
“MyPEEPS Mobile” markets itself as “a sexual health project for teen guys who are into guys.” It promotes the app as a way to “Learn about relationships, communication & ways to protect your health using an app.”
Some experts say there are ethical concerns with studies involving minors who are considered a vulnerable population, according to Dr. Monique Wubbenhorst, former deputy assistant administrator in the Bureau for Global Health at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
“There is an ethical balance between investigators’ desire to enroll children in a study and the need to support parents in caring for their children,” Wubbenhorst said. “There are additional concerns that minor children in this study may be engaged in sexually exploitative relationships with older males, sex trafficking/child prostitution, violence, and sexual abuse, from which they should be protected.”
Researchers are required to apply for a waiver of parental permission through the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services which means that they must prove that children who participate in the study will be protected through an “appropriate mechanism.”
Dr. Rebecca Schnall, the project leader of the MyPEEPS study, said that her team secured a waiver because of the minimal risk of the research, and she argued subjects of the study might be reluctant to participate if they were concerned their parents would have knowledge of their sexual activities.