The National Institutes of Health has spent more than $8 million on a research study that pays gay and transgender boys as young as 13 hundreds of dollars to report their sexual behavior on a mobile app, all without parental permission.
NIH-funded researchers at Columbia University offer up to $275 to gay and transgender boys, between the ages of 13 and 18, to document their sexual activity on MyPEEPS Mobile, including whether they have "condomless anal sex." The NIH spent more than $300,000 to develop the app in 2012 and 2013, and $7.9 million since 2016 for Columbia researchers to study the data it collects, according to a government spending database. The app for "young men who have sex with men" provides "interactive games and activities" designed to teach participating teenagers how to minimize risk in their sex lives, according to the research grant and resulting study.
While researchers say MyPEEPS Mobile provides educational information for gay adolescents on how to have safe sex, some medical experts say there are ethical concerns. According to one of the program's studies, teenaged participants in the pilot trial were "recruited" to use the app in six different cities and traveled to attend "interventions" to discuss the sex education program, all without parental permission.
"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," Dr. Monique Wubbenhorst, former deputy assistant administrator in the Bureau for Global Health at the U.S. Agency for International Development, told the Washington Free Beacon. "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."
Wubbenhorst, a former member of the Duke University Health System Institutional Review Board, said minors are considered a vulnerable population and are unable to give informed consent in research studies. Department of Health and Human Services regulations require researchers to apply for a waiver of parental permission for minors through designated institutional review boards, which determine if "an appropriate mechanism for protecting the children who will participate as subjects in the research is substituted."
The project leader of the MyPEEPS study, Dr. Rebecca Schnall, said her team was able to obtain a parental permission waiver from the institutional review board because the study poses minimal risk to its subjects.
"If parental permission were sought, then our study participants may not be willing to participate in this study because they will fear their parents' knowledge of their sexuality and sexual activities," Schnall told the Free Beacon.
Columbia University's review board approved the waiver for the MyPEEPs project, Schnall said.
Dr. Aaron Rothstein, a fellow in bioethics at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, said he is surprised the Columbia University researchers got a waiver for parental permission, especially considering the teenagers were paid and provided travel to attend group-based discussions.
"If parental consent is waived, there needs to be an appropriate mechanism in place to protect the minors," Rothstein told the Free Beacon. Wubbenhorst concurred, pointing to research that shows parents play a significant role in reducing or avoiding sexual risk for children.
Columbia University received an additional $340,000 this year for a study on MyPEEPS Mobile that focuses on transgender teenagers. Schnall said there is no plan to make the app public, as it is only used for research purposes.
Gay men represent 2 percent of the population and 56 percent of HIV cases, according to the NIH. The studies, funded by the Minority Health and Health Disparities division along with the Mental Health division, emphasize the need to focus on ethnically diverse youth.
Columbia University has long conducted research, backed by millions from the NIH, that studies young, especially minority LGBT individuals. The Free Beacon first reported that the NIH gave $432,000 to Columbia in 2015 to study how dating apps impact risky sexual behavior for gay men. Other studies include HIV risk of cannabis use among black gay men in Chicago and alcohol-involved sexual assault among bisexual women.
The NIH has been under fire in recent months for funding controversial studies. The Free Beacon first reported in January that Dr. Anthony Fauci's division at the health agency funded a study in which researchers injected male monkeys with female hormones. Researchers in another Fauci-funded study infected beagles with heartworm larvae and later euthanized them.