Gimmicks, apps and nudging

Over at Croakey, the Crikey health blog, ReGen CEO Laurence Alvis has written a cracking post on the shortcomings of apps and other digital tools that purport to change risky habits, like drinking or smoking. In regard to recent ‘your face as an alcoholic’ or ‘your face on meth’ apps, he writes:

Anyone with experience in working with (or caring for) young people knows that warning them of possible consequences in ten years’ time is unlikely to change their behaviour, particularly when that behaviour is associated with enjoyment and seen as being a natural part of their social life.  Young people in particular have a keen eye for detecting patronising or agenda-driven campaigns and are typically resistant to scare tactics.

While their goals are laudable, apps hoping to ‘nudge’ people towards different behaviours often fall victim to a fatal over-reach: trying to change ingrained habits simply through the download and occasional use of an app, or a little bit of extra information.

Or, as Alvis says:

If we’re serious about changing behaviour, we need interventions that are holistic, treat people with respect, support informed decision-making and build resilience.  Health advice that ignores the reality of young people’s experience is unlikely to be heeded, regardless of the medium for its delivery.

In saying that, though, there’s definitely a place for apps that do add value or inform the choices young people make. The trick is separating the good from the garbage. Perhaps recognising the difficulty of doing this consistently, the VicHealth award for Communication in Health Promotion this year went to the newly-developed Mobile Application Rating Scale, which objectively categorises public health-related apps.

Similarly, the Australian Drug Information Network’s app review service reviews new and emerging apps in an attempt to cut through the hype that often surrounds digital platforms, and objectively rank apps against one another.

As Alvis suggests, the best approaches tie together both digital and real-world initiatives. It’s less a case of “if we build it, they will come,” and more engaging people wherever they happen to be, on their own terms.