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UMass Developing Mobile App to Help Teens Quit Vaping

Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Medical School are working on an app for teens that would engage them with texts from peers who quit using e-cigarettes and reward them with points, similar to a game.

(TNS) — Behind the COVID-19 pandemic lurks an epidemic.

In 2019 and early 2020 vaping and e-cigarettes garnered the nation’s attention, but now as the Delta variant surges, vaping remains in the background as it has since COVID arrived.

Health officials aren’t looking to steer attention away from COVID but want the public to remember the seriousness of vaping, especially on teenagers.

“It’s a really concerning issue. I think part of the issue is the messaging around e-cigarettes is a little confusing,” said Dr. Rajani S Sadasivam, an associate professor of population & quantitative health sciences at University of Massachusetts Medical School. “The tobacco companies are saying this is not as harmful as cigarettes.”

Sadasivam is the principal investigator of a new study being conducted at UMass Medical School in Worcester that looks to develop and test new technology, which includes mobile apps that are meant to help teens quit e-cigarettes and vaping.

The idea is funded from a two-year grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse worth $753,750.

While researchers continue to figure out how the pandemic, which included more time at home and remote learning, affected the use of vaping among teens, some data suggest that it may have led to more individuals vaping.

“Now about 20 percent [of high school students] report using e-cigarettes,” said Lori Pbert, PhD, professor of population & quantitative health sciences and co-principal investigator with Sadasivam. “What is most concerning is that a large percentage of them — around 40 percent — use it 20 or more days a month, which tells you that this is not just experimentation or social use, but that these teens are likely addicted to nicotine.”

Sadasivam said while some research shows that e-cigarettes are safer than regular cigarettes for adults, long-term effects remain unknown. For teens, it’s a different story due to nicotine negatively affecting brain development.

Some e-cigarettes can provide even more nicotine than regular cigarettes, Pbert said.

“It’s really harmful because the nicotine harms their brain development,” Sadasivam said. “It’s really harming and when we see the rates, [use] is highest among adolescents.”

To lower vaping use among teens, UMass Medical School is developing a mobile app aimed at helping users quit.

The goal of the mobile app is to engage teens who vape through a text application that mirrors the success a user would experience through a game.

The “light touch” approach focuses more on lifestyle than specifically quitting. The texts are meant to engage the user, who could be rewarded with “points” the more they participate.

Users could then compare their engagement with other participants in the community.

“They are being provided incentives or some kind of reward for engaging with it,” Sadasivam said.

The texts and communications won’t be fired off by doctors or health professionals but more likely from peers. Studies have shown, Sadasivam said, that adolescents respond much better to communications from peers compared to other people, even experts.

The idea isn’t to infiltrate a user’s phone with health and safety pointers but to relay lived experiences from peers who stopped using e-cigarettes and their reason beyond quitting.

Peer-to-peer communication is also how researchers plan to spread the app to people who vape but have no interest in quitting and therefore would be less likely to use the app.

“The challenges are you have to be motivated or your parents have to be motivated,” Sadasivam said.

Once the app is operating, Sadasivam said one plan is to launch it within the public school system to try to reach low-interest students.

At the very least they can gain information about the reasons a person began using e-cigarettes and why they continue.

The project’s first phase this summer is to work with an advisory panel of 20 students and key staff from one high school to understand their needs and to better craft messages and technological approaches that will engage teenagers.

“Dr. Sadasivam has done such tremendous work with low-motivated adults, and we will take that as a starting point,” Pbert said. “We’re counting on the students to tear the current program apart and really make it their own.”

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