Last updated: 08 Jun, 2016

Look into any bar, pub or club in Victoria and you are likely to see three things in close proximity: young people, alcohol and mobile phones.

Mobiles go hand-in-hand with almost any activity for young people, but in particular they buzz and flash on a night out as young people take pictures, arrange to meet with friends and use social media.

This dynamic presents a question: how can we use mobile phones to access young people at the time and place they are making choices about drinking? With funding from a

VicHealth Innovation Grant, Dr Megan Lim has developed a mobile phone based intervention designed to reduce alcohol consumption and associated risky behaviour in Victorian youth aged 16 to 29; particularly those youth who engage in risky binge drinking.

The innovation is called MIDY (Mobile Intervention for Drinking in Young people), and is based primarily around young people receiving tailored SMS messages while they are drinking alcohol. Before beginning to drink, young people are directed to a mobile-responsive website where they are asked to respond to questions about their drinking habits and what most matters to them.

This initial screening tailors the SMS messages they later receive to their gender, age and most meaningful concerns. For some, this will be their sporting activities and others are more concerned with how drinking affects their friendships, family relationships, work and bank balance.

Based on these responses, SMS messages will then be sent each hour during drinking as reminders about their specific goals. The messages prompt quick replies to track how many drinks have been consumed and how much money has been spent, and adjust future messages to react to this user input.

“What makes MIDY unique is that using mobiles phones, we are able to both measure alcohol consumption and intervene during the course of a real night out drinking,” Dr Lim said.

The project began at the Burnet Institute, where Dr Lim has worked since 2003 across various youth health areas, including sexual health, mental health and illicit drug use.

Her research has specialised in new technology and its impact on health outcomes for young people. In late 2014, VicHealth awarded Dr Lim with an $188,000 research grant to enable wider research and trials for MIDY.

Following initial trials with 42 young people, Dr Lim made changes to the original design and delivery based on feedback. 

“One of the biggest changes we made is that we moved away from a focus on risk and long-term health issues in the SMS messages – messages like 'Alcohol causes cancer'. Instead, short-term consequences were focused on, like the fear of making a fool of yourself, being a burden on your friends, having unwanted sex, or overspending.”

Many of the SMS messages have been scripted by the 42 young people who trialed the technology over several months. Here are some examples of the messages that were sent:

  • Keep hydrated. Remember, water is free. So far tonight, you’ve spent $250.
  • What else could your money go towards?
  • How’s that 7am wake up going to feel?
  • You’re pacing your drinks nicely. Well done, bro.

Using the VicHealth funding and an additional $35,000 grant from Gandel Philanthropy, Dr Lim will soon trial MIDY with 300 young Victorians to assess whether the intervention is able to change drinking behaviours and attitudes over 12 weeks of consistent use. VicHealth Manager, Alcohol and Tobacco, Emma Saleeba, said MIDY aligns with VicHealth’s work to prevent harm from alcohol.

“This is a world first in providing in-situ personalised feedback for young people while in the actual drinking setting and context. It supports VicHealth’s focus on encouraging a better drinking culture by not only aiming to reduce risky drinking, but seeking to change young people’s perceptions and expectations of alcohol,” she said.

In the future, Dr Lim aims to partner with schools and universities to encourage use of MIDY by students at risk of binge drinking and associated harmful behaviour.

MIDY could also play a vital role in preventing injury and risk during Schoolies Week, school formal evenings and public holidays and festivals.

Dr Lim hopes MIDY can result in attitude and behaviour change that saves lives.

“Through MIDY we hope to reduce drinking on big nights by just a couple of drinks,” she said. “Even this small reduction is associated with a halving of the odds of a serious accident or death for young Victorians.”