Cell phones could help keep teenagers in line: study

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Teenagers love their cell phones, and researchers may be able to take advantage of that fact to ensure that they don’t fall into bad habits, a pilot study suggests.

Middle-school girls use mobile phones as they chat in a restaurant in Seoul December 15, 2006. REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon

In a study of 15 teenage girls, the investigated looked at the feasibility of using GPS-enabled cell phones to track adolescents’ whereabouts when they were away from home or school.

The researchers found that the girls were happy to take the phones with them wherever they went, and that the GPS accurately plotted their travels over one week.

The point of the surveillance was not to pass on information to curious parents, however. Instead, the researchers hope to use the technology to study the health risks that teenagers typically face, and possibly to intervene.

GPS-enabled cell phones “can help us better understand where adolescents spend their time and what they’re doing,” said Dr. Sarah E. Wiehe, the lead researcher on the study and an assistant professor of pediatrics at the Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis.

But “more exciting” than that, she told Reuters Health, is the possibility of using teenagers’ cell phone to intervene right at the time when they are most likely to take a health risk, like drinking or smoking.

If teens are most likely to drink right after school, for example, they could receive a timely text message that encourages health behavior.

Unlike a TV commercial discouraging smoking, for instance, text messages reach teenagers wherever they are, Wiehe pointed out.

Experts have known that teenagers’ environment -- their home life, school and peers -- all influence their health in some way, including whether they exercise or remain sedentary, or whether they drink and use drugs or choose to abstain.

But studies on teen health have focused on home and school, even though teenagers spend a considerable amount of time outside those two places.

In the current study, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, the girls spent one quarter of their time away from home or school. They strayed farthest from home on the weekends, going an average of 17 miles from home on weekend evenings.

Wiehe said that in future studies, cell phones could be used not only to track teenagers’ whereabouts but also as a “diary” where teenagers record information on the spot. Normally, she noted, researchers have to ask study participants to recall what they did on a given day, which is not a fully reliable way to collect health information.

Wiehe said the GPS-enabled phones she and her colleagues are using are for research only; researchers are not giving information to parents, she pointed out, though, that similar services are available for parents who want to keep tabs on their teenagers.