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Helping Teens Get Honest About Drinking with Automated-Response Calls

Garrett’s mom asked him if he was drinking at the weekend parties he attended. He answered with a shrug and said that he “tried it,” but didn’t get drunk.

A week later, before his school physical, Garrett’s doctor scheduled an automated-response call. The computer asked Garrett several questions about his health and activities. When asked about alcohol consumption, he answered honestly: he drinks heavily most weekends.

When prompted, he entered the number of times he drinks each month and the amount of alcohol he consumes.

Press One for Yes; Press Two for No

Researchers recently discovered that Garrett’s honesty is typical. When asked about their drinking habits via an automated-response call, teens are more likely to answer truthfully. Teens taking this survey are also more likely to talk to their doctor about drinking habits during their appointments. But why?

It’s possible that Garrett feels free to divulge this information because the call represents an anonymous setting. Even though his responses go into his medical file, the auto-response feels less intimidating and the computer is a non-threatening “interrogator.”

Pushing a few buttons to enter information or speaking simple terms (yes, no, three, six…) is much easier than telling his parents to their face that he got drunk Saturday night (and the Saturday before).

If it Works, Use it!

The results of this study have strong implications. First, we can trust the results from automated response polls among teenagers because they’re likely telling the truth.

Second, if automated calls make teens more likely to disclose information and make them more willing to talk to their doctors about alcohol, then we should encourage their use! Doctors will be better informed to recommend treatment if needed.

If you suspect your teen has an issue with alcohol, arrange a pre-appointment screening call to “grease the wheels.” This small step could help your teen open up during the appointment with their doctor.

This “intervention” step is fairly simple, inexpensive and non-intrusive. What’s more, the teens taking these calls won’t even see it as an “intervention.” To them, it’s just an automated call from the doctor’s office.

To you, it could be the breakthrough that opens the doors of communication and encourages honest answers about alcohol from your teen.