Seattle Children’s researchers develop an iPad app to address key teen health issues and provide guidance for using social media safely.

Megan Moreno_Lead Photo_Teens and Tech

Adolescents are as comfortable using technology as they are breathing. Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are more than a big part of their lives – they are their lives.

“Teens tell us over and over that their online lives and their offline lives are not separate worlds. It’s all real life to them,” says Dr. Megan Moreno, an adolescent medicine specialist at Seattle Children’s.

Moreno and other Children’s researchers and physicians are exploring health risks and opportunities created by technology’s omnipresent role in adolescent life.

Moreno, who leads the Social Media and Adolescent Health Research Team at Seattle Children's Research Institute, published “Sex, Drugs and Facebook” in 2013 to help parents teach their children to use social media safely and responsibly.

Children’s researchers, psychologist Dr. Cari McCarty and adolescent medicine specialist Dr. Laura Richardson, developed an interactive iPad app that screens adolescents for alcohol use, depression and other key behavioral health risks and then delivers immediate feedback to encourage healthy behavior.

New windows, new risks

“We’re in a unique time because young people don’t just read content on the Internet anymore. They use Facebook and other social media to create content – often very personal and potentially harmful to themselves or others,” Moreno says.

“The rise of social media opens new windows to look at health risks like drinking and creates new platforms to educate and intervene, but it also increases the danger of cyberbullying, sexting, exposure to inappropriate content and other online risks.”

“Sex, Drugs and Facebook” shares what Moreno’s team learned about keeping young people safe while using social media and the Internet. The book is a field guide for navigating what she calls the “online jungle.”

Moreno’s team received a grant in 2013 to better understand cyberbullying, which will help schools, law enforcement and others recognize cyberbullying and give researchers a common barometer to measure and compare prevalence.

The team also received a grant to study the impact of legalizing marijuana by comparing the social media posts of college students in Washington, where pot is legal, to those in Wisconsin, where it’s not.

Encouraging wise choices

The iPad app McCarty and Richardson developed provides a routine and efficient way to ensure six fundamental areas of adolescent health – sex, drugs, eating, emotions, physical activity and safety – are addressed during a 20-minute primary care appointment.

Richardson and McCarty_Body Photo_Teens and Tech

Teens are handed an iPad at check-in. After they answer the 42 screening questions on the app, it provides personalized feedback about the behaviors they report. The app flags the physician about any issues that should be discussed during the appointment and provides guidelines for taking the next step.

“So much of what we struggle with in medicine is having enough time to connect with patients,” Richardson says. “The app we developed frees physicians to spend more time during an appointment talking to patients about areas of potential concern and less time finding out what those areas may be.”

The immediate feedback to teens sets the app apart from other such platforms. The app informs teens how their behavior compares to their peer group and encourages them to consider how risky behavior affects their goals.

“We want to help teens make wise choices about their health,” McCarty says. “Telling them what to do doesn’t work. The app helps them think about their choices and what might be different about their life if they made a change.”

McCarty and Richardson plan to field-test the app at Children’s Adolescent Medicine clinic in 2014. Their goal is to make it available to primary care clinics everywhere. “This approach has a tremendous capacity to engage teens,” Richardson says. “They love their apps and that won’t change anytime soon.”