Engaging youth in mHealth: what works and how can we be sure?

Mhealth. 2021 Apr 20;7:23. doi: 10.21037/mhealth-20-48. eCollection 2021.


Background: Youth participating in mobile health (mHealth) intervention trials often engage with the technologies [e.g., applications (app) or mobile-optimized websites] only partially, often prematurely discontinuing use altogether. Limited engagement can impact the interventions effect on behavior change and compromise researchers' ability to test and estimate the true efficacy of their interventions. While mHealth interventions have been shown to be feasible and acceptable to youth, across diverse health conditions, strategies to increase engagement have been less well studied. Specifically, within HIV prevention and care mHealth interventions, there is not consensus as to which components represent the "key ingredients" to support maximal engagement of youth. Further, successful intervention evaluation requires the ability to systematically track users' engagement with intervention components (i.e., paradata) to evaluate its effects on behavior change.

Methods: As part of the Adolescent Medicine Trials Network UNC/Emory Center for Innovative Technology (iTech) portfolio of HIV/AIDS Interventions, we present diverse strategies used across five mHealth protocols seeking to promote youth engagement, track and measure engagement through paradata, and incorporate these components into mHealth intervention evaluations.

Results: We describe the importance of defining and measuring engagement using case studies from iTech to illustrate how different research teams select mHealth features to promote youth engagement over time, taking into account features embedded in the technology design, key mechanisms of change and trial outcomes (e.g., HIV testing, pre-exposure prophylaxis uptake and adherence, HIV treatment adherence). Finally, we discuss how the research teams plan to evaluate engagement's role on their intervention's outcomes.

Conclusions: Based on this synthesis, we discuss strategies to enhance mHealth engagement during intervention development and design, ensure its monitoring and reporting throughout the trial, and evaluate its impact on trial outcomes.

Keywords: HIV prevention and care; engagement; mHealth.