How apps can help change hazardous drinking habits in young people

Smartphone and web-based apps  providing personalised feedback could help young adults reduce hazardous levels of drinking, a new study by University of Melbourne researchers has found.

The study, published in Alcohol: Clinical & Experimental Research, tracked 313 undergraduate students, with an average age of 21, after providing them with personalised feedback about their drinking habits.

It found that those deemed “hazardous” drinkers, when given web or smartphone-based feedback via the Alcohol Capture app, changed their drinking patterns and by the end of the study their drinking levels were considered “non-harmful”.

Research fellow and first author Dr Antoinette Poulton, from the Cognitive Neuroimaging Lab in the School of Psychological Sciences, said the brief intervention included emailed advice or counselling about the negative consequences of drinking.

Dr Poulton said the research suggests a level of personalised intervention is effective in helping to reduce alcohol consumption.

“We examined the impact of a brief electronic intervention with both web and app-based components,” Dr Poulton said.

“It was designed to provide personalised feedback on social norms and health consequences, along with impulsivity  or self-control measures, and explanations that could plausibly motivate changes in drinking behaviour.”

The “hazardous” and “non-harmful” drinking levels were based on World Health Organisation guidelines, with researchers finding that the group who received personalised information and tips on self-control overall reduced their alcohol consumption by a third.

Dr Poulton said the study showed how useful technology could be in supporting behaviour change.

“The study provides further evidence that smartphone app interventions could have a meaningful impact on lessening the health, social, and economic burdens of problem drinking,” Dr Poulton said.

“Additional research is needed on which electronic features best support drinking reduction, the impact of such interventions on those at even greater risk of alcohol use disorder (AUD) and whether reductions in drinking are sustained long-term.”

Professor Rob Hester, the Head of the School of Psychological Sciences, is the senior author of the study and said the research provided useful evidence to inform future interventions that could support young people to change their relationship to alcohol.

“Few studies have investigated the effectiveness of brief electronic interventions – such as on smartphone apps or on web-based programs – and even fewer incorporate cognitive measures,” he said.

“This study could inform further research into the effectiveness of brief, digital interventions to help reduce alcohol consumption in the short-term.

“The project is ongoing, and we hope to reach and engage more young people and adults who are concerned about their alcohol use, helping to support less harmful drinking behaviour.”

More about the study:

  • Investigators worked with data from 313 University of Melbourne undergraduate students, and 74 per cent were women.
  • Data for this study was collected from 2020-2022.
  • The participants filled out surveys on demographics, alcohol use, anxiety and depression, and completed impulsivity-related cognitive tasks.
  • The group was split into three cohorts. One group received personalised information about drinking level and harmful consequences, the second group got the same information plus tailored details about their level of self-control (and how poor self-control appears to be related to increased risk of alcohol misuse) and the third was the control group.
  • The researchers found participants in the second cohort cut their alcohol consumption by a third - almost four drinks per week, or 1 ½ drinks per day.
  • The cohort who were classified as “non-harmful” drinkers did not change their drinking behaviours.

Those interested in taking part in future projects should contact the research team .

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Danielle Galvin