Background: The Internet is increasingly used as a medium for the delivery of interventions designed to promote health behavior change. However, reviews of these interventions to date have not systematically identified intervention characteristics and linked these to effectiveness.
Objectives: The present review sought to capitalize on recently published coding frames for assessing use of theory and behavior change techniques to investigate which characteristics of Internet-based interventions best promote health behavior change. In addition, we wanted to develop a novel coding scheme for assessing mode of delivery in Internet-based interventions and also to link different modes to effect sizes.
Methods: We conducted a computerized search of the databases indexed by ISI Web of Knowledge (including BIOSIS Previews and Medline) between 2000 and 2008. Studies were included if (1) the primary components of the intervention were delivered via the Internet, (2) participants were randomly assigned to conditions, and (3) a measure of behavior related to health was taken after the intervention.
Results: We found 85 studies that satisfied the inclusion criteria, providing a total sample size of 43,236 participants. On average, interventions had a statistically small but significant effect on health-related behavior (d(+) = 0.16, 95% CI 0.09 to 0.23). More extensive use of theory was associated with increases in effect size (P = .049), and, in particular, interventions based on the theory of planned behavior tended to have substantial effects on behavior (d(+) = 0.36, 95% CI 0.15 to 0.56). Interventions that incorporated more behavior change techniques also tended to have larger effects compared to interventions that incorporated fewer techniques (P < .001). Finally, the effectiveness of Internet-based interventions was enhanced by the use of additional methods of communicating with participants, especially the use of short message service (SMS), or text, messages.
Conclusions: The review provides a framework for the development of a science of Internet-based interventions, and our findings provide a rationale for investing in more intensive theory-based interventions that incorporate multiple behavior change techniques and modes of delivery.