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VCU researchers use text messages to reduce teen smoking

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Motivational text messages could encourage teens to stop smoking, according to a new study conducted by researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University.

The research team at the VCU Commonwealth Institute on Child and Family Studies (CICFS) examined a text-messaging intervention for adolescent smokers utilizing motivational interviewing techniques. The automated text messaging system activated teens’ desire to stop smoking through personalized, interactive and supportive texts.

“I came across the idea with our work with adolescents and the ubiquitous presence of their phones,” said lead author Michael Mason, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry in the VCU School of Medicine and director of the CICFS.

During the initial phase of the three-year intervention, 72 tobacco-dependent inner-city adolescents were given smartphones for six months. Half of the teens received 30 texts over five days that counseled them on tobacco use, while the other half received texts about general health habits such as diet and exercise. The researchers then assessed the adolescents over the next six months, having them complete self-reported surveys to measure tobacco use at one, three and six months following intervention.

After six months, significant differences existed between the two groups.

“The teens that got the counseling texts were smoking fewer cigarettes, increasing their intentions not to smoke in the future, and felt more supported by their peers compared to the control group at six months after the intervention,” Mason said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, tobacco use is initiated primarily during adolescence and nearly nine out of 10 smokers first tried cigarettes by age 18. If smoking persists at the current rate among youth in the U.S., 5.6 million of today’s Americans younger than 18 years old are projected to die prematurely from a smoking-related illness.

Future plans for the study include lengthening the time frame that teens receive the text messages, adding a biological measurement such as saliva samples to strengthen the verifiability of the teens’ self-reports and doing brain imaging on a portion of the teens.

“There is evidence to suggest that these text messages are working and the personalized nature of them activates a self-referential part of the brain associated with behavior change,” Mason said.

The study titled “Development and Outcomes of a Text Messaging Tobacco Cessation Intervention with Urban Adolescents” was published on Dec. 31 in the Substance Abuse journal’s website. It was supported by a $450,000 grant from the Virginia Foundation for Healthy Youth.

About VCU and VCU Medical Center

Virginia Commonwealth University is a major, urban public research university with national and international rankings in sponsored research. Located in downtown Richmond, VCU enrolls more than 31,000 students in 226 degree and certificate programs in the arts, sciences and humanities. Sixty-seven of the programs are unique in Virginia, many of them crossing the disciplines of VCU’s 13 schools and one college. MCV Hospitals and the health sciences schools of Virginia Commonwealth University comprise VCU Medical Center, one of the nation’s leading academic medical centers. For more, see www.vcu.edu.

Michael Mason, Ph.D.
Michael Mason, Ph.D.