Study Begins to Track Teen Drinking with Cell Phones

UC Irvine researchers are initiating a study to employ text messaging as a primary tool with which to collect data on substance use among preteens. UCI assistant professor of psychology and social behavior Candice Odgers will begin a five-year study this summer to examine preteens who are exposed to drugs and alcohol, including situations where they find themselves pressured or motivated into drinking. The study will focus on children from ages 10 to 13 and will feature this unconventional technological method to collect data in the research field.

Odgers and her research team will first conduct a brief survey for over 1,400 adolescents in Orange County middle schools and select those who vary on their involvement and current levels of exposure to drugs and alcohol in their families, peer networks and communities. The team will then recruit a smaller number of students, approximately 200, to enroll in the daily assessment portion of the study. These students will be given Palm Centro devices. Odgers stated that the purpose of using smart phones to collect data and keep in touch with experimental groups through text messaging is to capture their lives in “real time.”

“Young teens are very technologically savvy and our study team wanted to adopt a method that would engage the teens in the study,” Odgers said. “We have great sponsors for this project, so we will also be able to reward the teens for completing surveys and give them points throughout the study that they can exchange for big prizes at the end of the study.”

One of the main sponsors of Odgers’ study is the William T. Grant Scholars Program, part of the William T. Grant Foundation. The program contributed $350,000 to the study according to University Communications.

Vivian Tseng, program officer at the William T. Grant Foundation, stated that while Odgers is already an exceptional interdisciplinary scholar, the selection committee was impressed by the proposal and Odgers’ interest in expanding her skills.

“The foundation is excited to support [Odgers’] ambitious five-year research plan,” Tseng said.

Odgers and her research team will text various questions to the 200 preteens in order to assess multiple aspects of their lives.

Although the researchers are interested in understanding young teen experiences with substance use, the researchers will also be collecting data on other types of health behaviors, including diet, exercise and sleep.

“We also want to identify factors that may be triggering risky behaviors or protecting young teens in the face of difficult environments and situations. To accomplish this goal, we will be gathering information about their social support networks, emotions and daily experiences,” Odgers said.

Odgers admits that there is always a challenge to ensure that study members are providing accurate information.

“To help the adolescents feel comfortable disclosing information about their lives, we spend a lot of time reviewing the fact that their data is confidential and that it cannot be linked back to them once it is entered into the phone; so they do not have to worry about us sharing this information with anyone,” Odgers said.

Odgers added that UCI students will have the opportunity to help the research group spend time and build relationships with the preteens.

“UCI students will be involved in this process as ‘case managers,’ who will be responsible for tracking a group of teens and checking in with them via phone and text, meeting with them in person, and being there to answer any questions they may have. These types of strategies have worked in our prior studies, and we hope to build positive and trusting relationships with the teens here as well,” Odgers said.

Odgers cited three specific reasons why she is focusing on preteens or “early users” rather than teens who are experiencing drug and alcohol exposure on a more consistent basis.

“First, there is a growing body of evidence that exposure to substances prior to age 15 may lead to especially poor outcomes in teens, including substance dependency, school failure, contracting STDs and criminal involvement,” Odgers said.

“Second, substance use among young teens is very common. For example, national survey data indicates that over 50 percent of youth in the United States have consumed an entire drink of alcohol prior to their 15th birthday, with the majority of eighth graders perceiving alcohol as “fairly easy” or “easy to get,” ” Odgers said. “These young teens are also more likely to binge drink, which is known to impair memory and motor function and damage specific regions of the brain.

And finally, new studies are suggesting that young teens may be especially sensitive to alcohol and other drugs due to the rapid development of their brains and bodies during this period, Odgers stated.

Odgers cites that the U.S. Surgeon General has said that delaying early alcohol use is a key priority and an attainable goal that social scientists can help to achieve. She strongly supports the idea that delaying substance use initiation holds promise for improving the health of adolescents by preventing future drug and alcohol addiction, academic failure, criminal offending, health problems and loss of human potential and capital.

Her research will also help parents, teachers and other members of the public who are interested in what they should do to delay or ameliorate the consequences of early drugs and alcohol exposure. However, to date, Odgers stated that substance use prevention programs with adolescents have been largely ineffective. Therefore, her study is based on the idea that it is time to take a new approach to understanding the choices that teens make when confronted with drugs and alcohol for the first time — that is, giving young teens a voice for them to try to understand their lives and experiences in “real time” and from their perspective.