Teenagers spend a massive amount of time interacting with modern technology tools – and for good reason! Technology these days holds the key to not just instant entertainment, but to new found experiences, education and perspective on the world around us. If anyone knows technology best, it’s teens, and their powerful ability to interact with social media, video games and the Internet operates faster than many of us can keep up.

Technology is the driving force behind the Treatment Research Institute’s (TRI) latest project being funded by the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. Through a $3 million grant and clinical partnership with Phoenix House Foundation, TRI is preparing to implement and evaluate Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment (SBIRT) in New York high schools later this year. SBIRT is an evidence-based practice that consists of screening for risky substance use, followed by a brief motivational intervention, and when necessary, referral to treatment. Decades of research in medical settings has shown that this practice can significantly delay onset and reduce use of alcohol and other drugs.

As adolescents spend the majority of their day in school, this logical environment to offer prevention and early intervention programs will open the door to engagement opportunities that are proven to be effective.

The program will use a unique, computerized screening tool to engage more than 2,000 adolescents through “gaming” graphics and videos that simultaneously capture their interest, inform them about the potential dangers of alcohol and other substances, and screen them for at-risk behaviors. This experience will then be followed by a voluntary, brief motivational counseling session to check in on students, address their stresses and reinforce positive health decisions.

It takes the commonly held beliefs of many adolescents of what it means to have alcohol poisoning or what marijuana is really doing to their brains, and breaks down the science behind each, helping students learn about things like blood alcohol levels and how feelings experienced when under the influence translate into what is going on in their brain.

While it may be fun for the teens to use the “interactive drink calculator” and see how “buzzed” they can get their virtual character, they are learning how that alcohol buzz is affecting the brain and the consequences of such.

The tailored content and characters provide the adolescents a chance to self-identify with things such as language preference, ethnicity, gender and height. It also helps students by identifying emerging problems quickly, improving timely and appropriate intervention experiences.

The use of computerized learning has been proven more effective  in promoting assurance of a safe place to disclose information and not be judged; rather an engaging and motivating platform to learn more about these sensitive topics. Tailoring materials using technology to promote behavior changes has been successful in other areas such as pregnancy prevention, STD/HIV prevention and smoking cessation.

Along with being engaging to adolescents, in order for this program to be effective, it must comport with school curricula and operations and be financially self-sustaining.  By ensuring it “works” for numerous involved stakeholders, including students, parents, teachers, insurers and policy-makers, we have an even greater chance at combating adolescent substance use, and are one step closer to ensuring prevention is an understood and practiced behavior among this particularly vulnerable population.

Dr. Brenda Curtis is a Health Communication Research Scientist at the Treatment Research Institute. She received her Master’s of Science degree in Public Health from the University of Illinois and her Doctoral degree from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. Her principal research interests have been in the fields of Health Communication and Public Health with a special interest in adolescent and vulnerable populations.