VCU Researchers Use Texts to Curb TeenSmoking

Sep 8, 2015

18-year-old Corniqua Hodge quit smoking with the help of texts from VCU.

Texting is now a routine part of life for many people - especially teenagers, who often sleep with their phones so they don’t miss anything. 

At Virginia Commonwealth University, social scientists are looking at positive ways to use the power of texting with teens.

Researchers at VCU asked 200 teenagers to fill out a questionnaire about their smoking habit, their friends and their extra-curricular activities.  They then received a series of interactive text messages six times a day over a five-day period.  Michael Mason is an associate professor of psychiatry at the school of medicine.

“We have a schedule set up in a window of time that they’ve given us that makes sense- after school, before bed time, and it’s more than canned responses.  It’s really personalized.  It not only uses their name in each message.  It uses information that we’ve gathered through surveys - so we respond back: You told us that you smoked x amount of days with these friends, is that right?  They reply back, and we start the conversation.”

The exchange of text messages encouraged students to take part in activities that didn’t involve smoking, and to spend more time with friends who don’t smoke or with those who support their decision to quit.  The idea is to get them thinking about their goals and to promote positive social behavior in a subtle way.

Mason tracked the students for six months and found that teens who got messages designed to help them quit smoking were far more likely to quit or scale back than a control group that got generic, health-related texts.

“They reduced the number of cigarettes per smoking occasion.  They increased their intentions not to smoke in the future.  They improved their peer network in feeling like they have more social support among their peers, and they reduced the number of peers in their network who were smoking every day.”

The study was published in the journal Substance Abuse.