Development of Therapeutic Alliance and Social Presence in a Digital Intervention for Pediatric Concussion: Qualitative Exploratory Study

JMIR Form Res. 2024 Mar 22:8:e49133. doi: 10.2196/49133.


Background: Despite the promising benefits of self-guided digital interventions for adolescents recovering from concussion, attrition rates for such interventions are high. Evidence suggests that adults can develop therapeutic alliance with self-guided digital interventions, which is in turn associated with intervention engagement. However, no research has examined whether adolescents develop therapeutic alliance with self-guided digital interventions and what factors are important to its development. Additionally, social presence-the extent to which digital encounters feel like they are occurring in person-may be another relevant factor to understanding the nature of the connection between adolescents and a self-guided digital intervention, though this has yet to be explored.

Objective: This qualitative study explored the extent to which adolescents recovering from concussion developed therapeutic alliance and social presence during their use of a self-guided digital mindfulness-based intervention. Additionally, this study aimed to determine factors important to adolescents' development of therapeutic alliance and social presence with the intervention.

Methods: Adolescents aged between 12 and 17.99 years who sustained a concussion were recruited from 2 sites: a pediatric emergency department up to 48 hours after a concussion and a tertiary care clinic over 1 month following a concussion to capture adolescents who had both acute and persisting symptoms after concussion. Participants (N=10) completed a 4-week mindfulness-based intervention delivered through a smartphone app. Within the app, participants listened to audio recordings of mindfulness guides (voice actors) narrating psychoeducation and mindfulness practices. At 4 weeks, participants completed questionnaires and a semistructured interview exploring their experience of therapeutic alliance and social presence with the mindfulness guides in the intervention.

Results: Themes identified within the qualitative results revealed that participants developed therapeutic alliance and social presence by "developing a genuine connection" with their mindfulness guides and "sensing real people." Particularly important to the development of therapeutic alliance and social presence were the mindfulness guides' "personal backgrounds and voices," such that participants felt more connected to the guides by knowing information about them and through the guides' calm tone of voice in audio recordings. Quantitative findings supported qualitative results; participants' average score for therapeutic alliance was far above the scale midpoint, while the mixed results for social presence measures aligned with qualitative findings that participants felt that the mindfulness guides seemed real but not quite as real as an in-person connection would.

Conclusions: Our data suggest that adolescents can develop therapeutic alliance and social presence when using digital interventions with no direct human contact. Adolescents' development of therapeutic alliance and social presence with self-guided digital interventions can be bolstered by increasing human-like qualities (eg, real voices) within interventions. Maximizing therapeutic alliance and social presence may be a promising way to reduce attrition in self-guided digital interventions while providing accessible treatment.

Keywords: adolescent; concussion; digital therapeutics; eHealth; mHealth; mindfulness; mobile health; social presence; working alliance.