How will mobile phone app tackle university binge drinking culture in Australia?

Binge drinking

Binge drinking at university seems to be a traditional pastime. Whether it is at an orientation week camp or an end-of-year “booze cruise” many university events seem to be built around the idea of getting drunk.

It is a problem that has been recognised by VicHealth, which has spent $300,000 on a trial project aimed at reducing the amount of binge drinking among university students.

The trial includes student-led reviews of college alcohol policies, a social media campaign, research, and the use of a mobile phone app that was developed by medical research organisation the Burnet Institute.

Though australia is known to be a nation of drinkers with almost 18% having a drink on a daily basis at a level that is considered risky. But the ill-effects of such behaviour extend to binge drinking impacts on health and well-beingassaults drink driving with resulting car accidents and many others.

Various governments and organisations have launched campaigns and policies to combat problem drinking, such as Danny Green’s Coward Punch Campaign and the lock out laws in New South Wales and Queensland.

Lock out laws have met with some success in reducing alcohol-related serious injuries in some regions. But they have also been criticised with claims the laws are harming businesses or that the cultural image of a high profile and vibrant urban centre such as Sydney is being distorted.

But there might be another way to tackle the problems related to the over-consumption of alcohol that doesn’t require large-scale government intervention.

binge drinking

The apps that can help solve the problem

There are many apps that help you in overcoming bad behavioural habits, such as drinking too much, technology can help by providing a subtle and more personalised solution to the problem.

Smartphone apps can provide real-time intervention on the go. They allow people to get the right information at the right time regarding their drinking habits.

Popular alcohol control apps include examples such as Stop Drinking with Andrew Johnson for Apple or Android which relies on relaxation and hypnotism and other apps which simply count the intake of alcohol (Sobriety Counter is one such app for Android).

Such mediated, anonymous and indirect interaction can also help people suffering from a drinking problem who are otherwise reluctant to visit rehabilitation and facility centres. In this way technology can facilitate a change in behaviour through persuasion but not coercion. This is known as persuasive technology, a term originally coined by Stanford University researcher BJ Fogg.

Such technologies have already helped with other problems, such as obesity, bullying and racism by motivating people, providing knowledge, supporting decision making and ultimately facilitating behaviour change.

Binge drinking

There is growing realisation of the importance of persuasive technology in mitigating the harmful side effects of alcohol and other bad habits.

There are a number of web and mobile  applications that help people with their alcohol intake. But web-based applications usually cannot be accessed at a user’s own discretion as they require some form of synchronisation with the user’s phone.

The number of non-drinkers at university is on the rise, however, the practice of binge drinking is also steadily increasing with almost 50 per cent of young people continuing to binge drink on a monthly basis. The major health risks and long-term addiction problems led VicHealth to try to find a solution.

Which app is best?

Binge drinking app

There are two main types of strategies that were prevalent in such apps. Some used motivation and others self-control to help reduce or monitor alcohol intake like Quit That. The former rely on different persuasive strategies such as praise and reward mechanism, social interaction with avatars, competitions, reminders and notifications.

Self-control apps mostly rely on users to monitor and manage their intake by providing information, such as blood alcohol concentration levels. Self-control apps do not explicitly inform the user when their alcohol intake crosses a level of high risk.

The app, designed by the Burnet Institute, is part of a $300,000 campaign from VicHealth to curb binge drinking among university-age Australians, but has been likened to a nagging cyber-parent.

Users will activate the app before they embark on a night out, and the app will ask questions such as “Do you have work tomorrow?” or “What time do you intend on going home?”

Students will also be asked to complete periodic surveys about how they are feeling, how much money they have spent, and how inebriated they feel. The app will keep sending text messages during the night.

According to Dr Megan Lim the idea of the app is that it is interactive, you register with the app and then [set it] saying which night you might be going out. On that particular night, at 6:00pm, you will get a message asking you to take a survey.

Throughout the night SMS reminders will be sent to the app user, acting as a deterrent to continue drinking, almost like a cyber parent.

Researchers are confident it will have a positive effect but some students are not so sure.

How the app works

  • Student registers for the app and notifications service via their mobile phones
  • Student types in which night they are going out
  • At 6:00pm on the night out, a message will be sent asking the student to take a survey about how long they intend to stay out, and their plans or commitments the next day
  • Throughout the night the app will send text messages to the student asking how much they have had to drink and how much money they have spent
  • The student will then get messages such as “You have spent more than you wanted to tonight”, or “Don’t forget you have an exam at 8:00am tomorrow”

In addition to the mobile phone intervention trial, students and staff will have the opportunity to review college alcohol policies and a targeted social media campaign will expose students to positive messages about drinking moderately.