OXFORD, United Kingdom — People may soon be able to turn to their phones for help if they want to drink less. International researchers have found that college students can significantly reduce their alcohol consumption by using a specially-designed smartphone app that monitors their drinking. The study discovered that students who had access to this intervention app consumed fewer alcoholic drinks overall and reduced the frequency of heavy drinking days.
Unhealthy alcohol consumption poses the most significant health risk for individuals between 15 and 49 years-old. This kind of drinking is widespread among adult students, which spurred the creation of the smartphone app aimed at promoting responsible drinking.
During the study, 1,770 students from four Swiss universities who had previously been identified as having unhealthy alcohol habits in a questionnaire participated in the project. These students reported an average weekly consumption of 8.59 standard alcoholic drinks and indulged in heavy drinking on 3.53 days a month.
A “heavy drinking day” in Switzerland is defined as the consumption of at least five standard alcoholic drinks for men and at least four for women. When equating what a standard drink is, in Switzerland, it contains 10 to 12 grams of ethanol, compared to eight grams in the United Kingdom and 14 grams in the United States.
The student participants were randomly split into two groups. The first group, called the intervention group, was asked to download the “Smaart” app. Those who downloaded it, which was 83.5 percent of the group, were rewarded with a gift voucher. In contrast, the second group, the comparison group, received a gift voucher simply for completing the initial questionnaire and did not receive any assistance or support to cut their drinking.
Gift vouchers were also awarded to students who completed follow-up questionnaires at intervals of three, six, and 12 months.
After a year, the intervention group reported a 10-percent reduction in their weekly alcohol intake and an 11-percent decrease in heavy drinking days per month compared to the comparison group.
Features of the app, available to the intervention group throughout the year, included personalized feedback on drinking habits, estimated blood alcohol content, a self-monitoring tool, goal setting, a designated driver selector, and informational fact sheets on the impact of alcohol on health.
Those who used the app accessed it an average of 21.2 times over the year, with some accessing it as many as 403 times.
The study did have its limitations, primarily the potential under-reporting of alcohol intake, given that students self-reported their habits. Additionally, there’s a possibility that students from the comparison group might have accessed the app indirectly through friends.
“Compared with the group who were not given the intervention, providing access to the app for 12 months was effective at reducing the average drinking volume of university students who had self-reported unhealthy alcohol use at baseline,” the study authors report in a media release.
Researchers also noted that this intervention method is resource-efficient as it doesn’t require hiring trained professionals or dedicated campus spaces. Following the success of the study, a version of the app has been made freely available for both Apple and Android smartphones.
Researchers noted the app’s potential but emphasized that such interventions are not a complete solution, especially when considering international targets like the World Health Organization’s goal of a 20-percent reduction in harmful alcohol use by 2030.
The UK’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence also backs the idea, suggesting that digital and mobile health interventions can be considered alongside existing services to reduce alcohol intake.
The study is published in the journal The BMJ.