Parents see value of text messages in supporting healthy child behaviors

Text messaging is a promising medium for supporting pediatric obesity-related behavior change and parent perspectives could assist in the design of text-based interventions, finds a study in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.

"Few studies have examined text messaging interventions to influence child health behaviors or explored parental perceptions of mobile technologies to support behavior change among children," state the article's authors. "Our aim was to examine parental acceptability and preferences for text messaging to support pediatric obesity-related behavior change."

In the study, focus groups and follow-up interviews were conducted with parents of overweight and obese children, aged six to 12 years, who were seen for "well-child" care in eastern Massachusetts. A professional moderator used a semistructured discussion guide and sample text messages to catalyze group discussions. 

Seven participants received three weeks of text messages before a follow-up one-on-one telephone interview. Using a framework analysis approach, researchers systematically coded and analyzed group and interview data to identify "salient and convergent" themes.

"We reached thematic saturation after five focus groups and seven follow-up interviews with a total of 31 parents of diverse race/ethnicity and education levels," states the article. "Parents were generally enthusiastic about receiving text messages to support healthy behaviors for their children and preferred them to paper or email communication because they are brief and difficult to ignore."

Parents in the study were enthusiastic about text messaging interventions and most commonly cited convenience and "ease of use" as advantages. Many of the parents characterized text messaging as more effective than other types of communication because its brevity, immediacy, and "hard to ignore" quality.

"While some reported more comfort with email than text messaging, many felt inundated with emails and reported consequently ignoring or overlooking many," according to the authors. "Some considered the asynchronous nature of text messaging a benefit because you can read and reply to messages when convenient. Many mentioned that text messages are easy to share and show to others, allowing quick dissemination of health messages to family and friends."

Limitations of text messaging described by parents included the difficulty of referring back to messages at a later time and message size constraints. A few parents described less comfort with the technology, and some felt cost would be a barrier for those without unlimited text messaging plans.

"This study represents a novel exploration of parent preferences regarding text messaging and other technologies to support obesity-related behavior change for their children and presents themes that can guide future interventions," concluded the article. "Studying actual behavior change in response to text messaging will be a critical next step."

Towards that end, a recent study from the Georgia Institute of Technology found that simple, daily SMS text messages asking pediatric asthma patients about their symptoms and providing knowledge about their condition can lead to improved health outcomes.

To learn more:
- read the study in JMIR