Tracking teenage drinking

(Edmonton) Two medical researchers from the University of Alberta are spearheading a Canada-wide pilot study about alcohol misuse among teenagers. The research subjects—teens who have sobered up in hospital emergency rooms, having landed there as a result of alcohol misuse—use a tablet computer to complete a survey about their drinking patterns.

The two principal investigators in the study are Amanda Newton, a researcher in the Department of Pediatrics, and Kathryn Dong, a practising emergency room physician and researcher in the Department of Emergency Medicine. The other members of their research team are Rhonda Rosychuk and Samina Ali, both from the Department of Pediatrics, Cam Wild from the U of A School of Public Health, and Ian Colman, now at the University of Ottawa.

The three-year pilot study started last summer in Edmonton, then expanded to Halifax in October 2011, with the third and final site in Calgary joining the study in December 2011. The researchers hope to involve 160 teens.

Each morning, research assistants at each site go to the emergency department in a local hospital to ask medical professionals if teens arrived overnight due to alcohol misuse. If so, a research assistant will approach each teen (if the teen is sober) and ask if he or she would be interested in taking part in a study. If the teen agrees, the research assistant will obtain consent, then give the teen a computer tablet to complete the 13-question survey in private.

The survey, which takes fewer than three minutes to complete, asks the teens how much alcohol they consumed and how often they consume it. After the teens complete the survey, the computer program gives individualized feedback about lifestyle and how their consumption compares to other teens in Alberta, whether they are above or below the provincial average in terms of number and frequency of drinks they consume.

The feedback will also let teens know the consequences of their behaviour. Teens will find out how much money they spend on alcohol each year based on how much they consume each week, and how they could have spent that amount of money instead. For example, the program tells how many movie tickets or how much clothing they forfeited for the amount of alcohol they bought, based on their reported consumption.

At the end of the survey, the researchers ask participants for follow-up contact information. They contact the teens one month and three months after the emergency room visit and ask them the same questions. They give the teens a list of resources they can use to find help for concerns they may have arising from the feedback the program provides. The researchers are delivering the survey in partnership with Evolution Health, a company that has developed an online “check your drinking” tool for adults.

“One of my working hypotheses is that this type of information coming from a computer program—where the teens put the information in and then it comes back to them—is that it seems more credible than a doctor or a nurse saying, ‘You shouldn’t drink so much, it’s not good for you, it’s bad for your body.’ Or having mom and dad saying those types of things,” says principal investigator Amanda Newton.

“The feedback will be coming from a more neutral source—a computer—which is something that I think will resonate with a technology-savvy generation.”

Research team member Cam Wild did similar research about adult alcohol misuse and found that Internet surveys with individualized feedback were effective in reducing risky behaviours. Newton hopes to see similar results from the teens her team surveys in emergency departments.

The Women and Children’s Health Research Institute was one of the organizations funding this pilot study.