MCTeen: A Digital Coach for Adolescent Substance Use in the US

Youth substance use (SU) is a major public health concern in the U.S. given its association with morbidity and mortality outcomes as well as a range of other negative social and emotional outcomes. Intervention for problematic youth SU remains a difficult task due to poor prognosis once SU rises to the level of diagnosable disorder. Efforts to prevent SU initiation and progression in youth remains a critical area of study, yet current tools for SU prevention are suboptimal based on limitations in efficacy or difficulty with scalability. Novel prevention methods that can be implemented broadly and scaled up at low cost are needed, and digital therapeutics are increasingly being used to address these issues.

Unfortunately, no freely available evidence-based digital therapeutic exists to prevent SU progression in older high school youth (junior and senior students), specifically. This is a critical time of youth development in relation to SU outcomes, as youth are individuating from their parents, preparing for life outside their caregiver’s homes, beginning to drive, and experimenting with various substances of abuse. Given the proliferation of mobile technology within this age group (e.g., at least 87% of 14-18 year olds have their own smartphone), digital interventions disseminated through smartphone technology represent a novel, confidential and low-cost way to address youth health risk behaviors.

The proposed project will support future research to address this gap by updating a pre-existing app (MobileCoach-Alcohol) for efficacy testing within U.S. high school youth. Through this pilot grant, the MobileCoach platform will be transitioned to a smartphone app to promote usability and cost-effectiveness (i.e., no SMS-based costs), and the new SU intervention (MobileCoach-Teen) will be developed that includes content translated to English as well as additional information on tobacco and cannabis. Thus, the goals of this project are to 1) modify the MobileCoach app and intervention materials to promote efficacy testing within U.S. high school youth and 2) test the usability and acceptability of the new MobileCoach-Teen app with U.S. youth. Successful completion of this pilot project will allow for the necessary modifications to the MC platform and intervention materials that will enable the PI and members of her team to complete tasks associated with a larger randomized controlled trial of the MobileCoach-Teen intervention in the U.S.

Related Work

Kowatsch, T., Volland, D., Shih, I., Rüegger, D., Künzler, F., Barata, F., Filler, A., Büchter, D., Brogle, B., Heldt, K., Gindrat, P., Farpour-Lambert, N., l’Allemand, D. (2017) Design and Evaluation of a Mobile Chat App for the Open Source Behavioral Health Intervention Platform MobileCoach, In: Maedche A., vom Brocke J., Hevner A. (eds) Designing the Digital Transformation. DESRIST 2017. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, vol 10243. Springer: Berlin; Germany, 485-489. (Paper-PDF | Poster-PDF | Slide-PDF | Screencast)

Filler, A., Kowatsch, T., Haug, S., Wahle, F., Staake, T. & Fleisch, E. (2015) MobileCoach: A Novel Open Source Platform for the Design of Evidence-based, Scalable and Low-Cost Behavioral Health Interventions – Overview and Preliminary Evaluation in the Public Health Context. Wireless Telecommunications Symposium 2015 (WTS 2015), New York, USA. ***Outstanding Paper Award & Best Graduate Student Paper Award*** PDF

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CDHI Research Team

Filipe Barata, Chen-Hsuan (Iris) Shih, Florian Künzler, Dominik Rüegger & Tobias Kowatsch


Jan 2018 – Dec 2019


Joy Gabrielli, PhD (Principal Investigator, Department of Clinical and Health Psychology, University of Florida, USA), Catherine Stanger, PhD (Mentor, Center for Technology and Behavioral Health, Geisel School of Medicine, Dartmouth College, USA), Severin Haug, PhD (Co-Mentor, Swiss Institute of Public Health and Addiction, University of Zurich), Dr. Dirk Volland & Andreas Filler (Pathmate Technologies)