Primary Sources: Can Text Messages Reduce Risky Drinking and Sexual Behavior?

Photograph of a woman reading a text message on her cell phone.

"A Sex Risk Reduction Text-Message Program for Young Adult Females Discharged From the Emergency Department" (abstract). Brian Suffoletto, Aletha Akers, Kathleen A. McGinnis, et al. Journal of Adolescent Health, Vol. 53, No. 3 (September 2013).

What it’s about: In an effort to reduce risky sexual behavior, researchers selected 52 young women to participate in a short-term, weekly text messaging program. The 18- to 24-year-old participants were recruited from an urban Pennsylvania emergency department and had reported a recent risky sexual encounter and hazardous drinking.

Why read it: Because so many young adults own a mobile phone (95 percent, according to this study’s authors) and text often to communicate with friends and family, public health practitioners have been experimenting with promoting health and preventing illness using text messages. Text messaging has been used to promote sexual health among young adults by improving communication between patients and sexual health clinics as well as helping to collect data about sexual risk-taking. This study aimed to find a way to get such a program into the hands of young women most likely to have risky sex.

Biggest takeaways for family and youth workers: During the course of the study, participants in the intervention received weekly text messages asking about risky behavior during the previous week. The texts also gave feedback personalized to each young woman and helped the women set goals to avoid risky behavior during the upcoming week. Participants in the control group, on the other hand, only received welcome messages and weekly reminders to look out for the Web-based followup at the end of the program.

In the end, 39 percent of the participants completed the entire 12-week program and both the group receiving the intervention and the control group showed an increase in condom use. Despite the similarity in results between the two groups, the researchers observed some changes in the intervention group not seen in the control group. For example, 29 percent of participants who set themselves the goal of not to having another risky sexual encounter had a repeat encounter. All of the young women who didn't set such a goal ended up having another risky encounter.

Young adults have high rates of STDs, and they often use emergency departments for care, the researchers say. That makes an emergency department “a unique venue to screen young adults for at-risk behavior and intervene to reduce future risk.” The authors say that their approach of using text messaging could easily be integrated into standard practice in emergency departments. 

Additional references: We've written about text message programs promoting young people’s health in "Bright Idea: Texting for Teen Health."

(Publications discussed here do not necessarily reflect the views of NCFY, FYSB, or the Administration for Children and Families. Go to the NCFY literature database for abstracts of this and other publications.)

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