art by Dheeraj K. Jalluri

A Modern Approach to Stopping Binge Drinking

by Rachel Butch


An announcement flashes brightly from an LCD screen in the University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning. The announcement depicts a scene where a Port Authority bus zooms down the road, about to hit two unsuspecting students who are oblivious to the imminent peril as they are too focused on their phones. Obviously, inappropriate cell phone use can put us into danger. This is evident with the students in this public service announcement, or when an individual chooses to text and drive. However, what if we could use cell phones in another better way in order to keep us safely out of the emergency room?

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh who have potentially found a way to decrease binge-drinking habits in college-aged people using SMS messaging are currently investigating this possibility.

Young adulthood is a critical period for habit formation and a time where substance use, specifically alcohol consumption, can peak. Excessive alcohol consumption at this time period can lead to long-term health consequences and the onset of alcohol-use disorders. In 2010, excessive alcohol use cost the United States $249 billion dollars. Most of this money was lost due to decreased workplace productivity, crime and the cost of treating patients with injuries and health problems due to excessive alcohol consumption. If binge-drinking interventions target young adults during this critical time, the public health burden of managing and treating alcohol use disorders might be drastically reduced.

Participants in a recent study included individuals who had visited one of Pittsburgh’s Emergency departments and self-reported binge drinking habits (>3 drinks for women and >4 drinks for men). The researchers separated the participants into three different groups in order to receive different kinds of message intervention.

Group one was engaged in two-way messaging conversation. On Thursdays, these subjects were sent messages asking about their drinking plans for the upcoming weekend along with tailored responses aimed to increase the participant’s motivation to drink more responsibly. If the participant reported they had plans to drink, the SMS asked if they were willing to set a goal to have fewer drinks than the binge-drinking limit. This group also received messages on Sundays that asked about how the weekend went, and checking to see if the participant achieved their goals.

The SMS messages offered congratulations if the goals were met or encouraged the participant to reflect on their alcohol use if they were not. The second group did not receive messages on Thursdays, but were engaged in two-way SMS messaging on Sunday evenings. However, while the messages received by this group promoted self-reported alcohol use, they did not contain tailored alcohol-related feedback. A final control group did not receive any SMS communication at all.

While there was no significant difference found between the group receiving the messages without a tailored response and the control group receiving no messages, this study found the group that had received tailored feedback to weekend plans reduced their dangerous drinking behaviors by 12 percent.

Brian Suffoletto, one of the researchers from the University of Pittsburgh involved in this study, commented “When you’re face-to-face with an individual, it has been shown that people are less likely to tell you bad things about themselves because they feel nervous that you would judge them.” Message-based studies like these are important because people often feel uncomfortable or threatened when confronted, thus do not accept help or choose to lie about their behaviors. The anonymity that SMS-message intervention provides allows participants to give honest responses and empower them to change dangerous behaviors.

Despite the success of this study, researchers predict that this messaging treatment would only prevent one out of 13 young adults from binge drinking. However, the low-cost of administering SMS-message intervention and the popularity of mobile devices amongst young adults suggests that similar interventions can be implemented. This can potentially create widespread impact on public health through reducing immediate and long-term health complications by targeting drinking behavior during this critical period of our lives.