A new mobile app named Harbor is in development by researchers at the University of Illinois Urban-Champaign. Harbor will be designed to teach young adults (ages 18-29) how to talk to their peers if they are concerned about said peers’ drug or alcohol use. The lead developer of the app, Douglass C. Smith, is a social work professor who is also the director of the Center for Prevention Research and Development at the University of Illinois. Smith said that while young adults have the highest rates of substance use, they also are least likely to seek treatment.
A study for this project, published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, surveyed 450 young adults. 45% of respondents indicated that they were concerned about a close friends’ substance use. Kyle M. Bennet, a graduate student working on the project, says that for those responding affirmatively “there’s a good chance their friend is probably using at some sort of risky level.” However, Bennet notes, while many young people may be troubled by friends’ drug or alcohol use, many of them are uncertain on how to talk about it. The unfortunate reality is that many people feel like they could have intervened in some way, but often are not sure of how to confront the situation or what to say. Bennet says that Harbor will guide people in a way to support their friends without being confrontational or enabling.
One of the primary functions of the app is that it will prompt the user to answer several questions regarding their friend’s substance use. The app will then provide feedback on the potential seriousness of the situation. This feature could be useful to those who are indecisive or conflicted about intervening. It could potentially cement to the person the urgency, or even make them realize their friend’s behavior is more serious than they thought. “Since young adults have really low rates of coming to treatment, we thought that this peer model might be a way of expanding the benefits of treatment to people who don’t usually seek it,” Smith said. “A surprising finding from that study was that both the client and their friend made changes in their substance use behaviors and got better within six months.”
Another feature Harbor provides is that it will provide possible text messages and dialogues that could help someone talk to who they are concerned about. Smith admitted there was a challenge in making these texts and dialogues sound natural and not generic, as well as using realistic language for the 18-29 age group. Of course, those using the app could take the generated messages and add their own personal touch. It’s a good starting point for those who don’t know what to say, or even know the appropriate language to use.
Smith said that the idea for the app came from a prior study he conducted in 2015, “Six Month Outcomes of a Peer-Enhanced Community Approach for Emerging Adults with Substance Misuse.” The study explored the efficacy of having young people misusing alcohol or marijuana invite close friends to participate in treatment sessions to provide social support. Smith said that “A surprising finding from that study was that both the client and their friend made changes in their substance use behaviors and got better within six months.”
The team is currently refining and beta-testing the Harbor app. They will be releasing it in a controlled trial with young adults and their friends in a clinic setting this spring. The current study “Usability and acceptability of a mobile app to help emerging adults address their friends’ substance use (Harbor)” is available online. Below are links to the current study as well as the 2015 study.
Current Study: https://www.jmir.org/2020/11/e16632