Rethinking Healthcare

Texts, drugs, and alcohol

Texts, drugs, and alcohol

Posting in Technology

Two new studies show how texting can pose as a health risk to some and improve the health in others.

Texting has proved to be a distraction for drivers and a record of alleged infidelity, and a study now links excessive texting to health risks in teenagers.

To assess the correlation between texting and “poor health behaviors,” a team of researchers led by Scott Frank of the Case Western Reserve School of Medicine in Ohio surveyed a swath of urban Midwestern high school students.

The results of the survey, revealed at the American Public Health Association’s 138th Annual Meeting and Exposition in Denver this week, showed that one-fifth of those teenagers were hyper-texters, sending more than 120 texts per school day.

Survey says a hyper-texter is:

  • 40 percent more likely to try cigarettes,
  • 2 times more likely to try alcohol,
  • 43 percent more likely to become a binge drinker,
  • 41 percent more likely to use illicit drugs,
  • (and 3 times more likely to have sex and 90 percent more likely to report 4 or more sexual partners).

“The startling results of this study suggest that when left unchecked texting and other widely popular methods of staying connected can have dangerous health effects on teenagers,” Frank said.

Hyper-networking teens, who spent more than 3 hours per school day on social networking websites, made up one-tenth of the study group. Hyper-networkers are more likely to participate in these behaviors than hyper-texters (although about 4 percent of the students surveyed were considered “hyper” in both categories).

Though suggestive, the study is merely correlation. The researchers were quick to emphasize that texting and social networking didn’t necessarily cause the potentially risky behaviors. “It does make sense that these technologies make it easier for kids to fall into a trap of working too hard to fit in,” Frank told the New York Times. “Their choice of friends is the single most important thing. The more texting they do, the more potential for exposure to high-tech peer pressure,” he told the Washington Post.

Meanwhile, on the flip side of things and a whole ocean away, researchers found that text messages improve the chances that patients with HIV in Kenya will adhere to their treatment.

The new Lancet study followed over 500 HIV/AIDS patients for two and a half years and showed that patients who received weekly text message “check-ins” were 12% more likely to have an undetectable level of the HIV virus a year after starting antiretroviral treatment.

“Adhering to such a regimen can be particularly difficult in the developing world,” said lead author Richard Lester of the University of British Columbia Faculty of Medicine. Participants received a weekly message from their clinic asking “Mambo?” (or “How are you?” in Kiswahili). The clinics contacted patients who reported a problem or who didn’t respond with 48 hours.

With this text service, one extra patient would achieve adherence for every nine patients using, and one extra person would achieve viral suppression for every 12 treated. Each message costing about 5 cents and follow-up voice calls averaged $3.75 per nurse per month.

“Considering the ubiquity of mobile phones and the minimal expense in sending text messages, this practice can be an extremely cost-effective way of improving outcomes for HIV patients – not only in Africa, but around the world, particularly with transient, low-income populations," Lester said. “It can reduce the rate of transmission and the incidence of drug resistance, which then requires the use of more expensive, second-line drugs. Text messaging not only carries a huge humanitarian impact, but significant savings for health care systems and aid programs.”

Image by strrawberrryface via Flickr

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Janet Fang

Contributing Editor

Janet Fang has written for Nature, Discover and the Point Reyes Light. She is currently a lab technician at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. She holds degrees from the University of California, Berkeley and Columbia University. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure