Text Messaging to Beat Addiction?

Posted on January 14th, 2012
Posted in Articles

Text messaging has gotten a bad rap in the media. Teens are becoming addicted to it; people are getting in car accidents because it’s distracting. But text messaging is a quick and easy way to stay in touch with friends and loved ones. Now it’s also being explored by researchers who believe that young people’s obsession with technology can be used to help them drop unhealthy drinking habits.

In the study, 15 problem drinkers who sent and received text messages monitoring the number of drinks they consumed drank less after 12 weeks than they did at the start. Each participant took a weekly text message survey. Depending on their responses, they received automated texts containing either words of encouragement or recommendations for limiting alcohol consumption. The participants who agreed to cut down on their drinking then received follow-up texts with ideas for making healthier choices (e.g., counting drinks or spacing the drinks apart).

Texting appears to have helped the participants drink less often (3.4 fewer days than in the month prior to the study) and less heavily (about two fewer drinks on average). Another group of young people who sent but didn’t receive texts and a control group that sent no texts at all weren’t as successful in cutting back on their drinking.

What made text messaging so effective? Researchers incorporated elements that have been proven effective in treating addiction such as:

  • Self-monitoring of alcohol consumption
  • Setting short-term goals

In addition to the benefits of these traditional approaches, researchers believe that the immediacy of feedback reinforced positive behaviors and that the anonymity of text messaging may have promoted greater honesty among the study participants. We are so accustomed to carrying our cell phones around with us and checking them regularly that they may be useful tools in tracking our behavior.

If text messaging proves helpful in treating addiction, similar programs may be implemented to help people eat more nutritiously, exercise more frequently and adopt healthier lifestyles overall. Parents may be able to discourage underage drinking among their teens by using some of the text examples from the study.

“In traditional health models, patients have been in the passenger seats in healthcare,” said lead author Brian Suffoletto, MD, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at the University of Pittsburgh. “Now… they become drivers of their own health improvement. We really think this innovation is an example of not just assisting, but engaging in self-management.”

The study’s findings were published in the online version of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

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