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Are Apps the Answer for HIV Prevention in Inner City Teens?

February 28, 2014

SmartphonePaulina Sockolow, DrPH, an assistant professor in Health Systems and Services Research, is working with an interdisciplinary team to bring a psycho-educational behavioral intervention to the smartphones of inner city teens. The pilot smartphone application is currently being co-developed with teenagers in Albany, Schenectady and Troy, New York in affiliation with the AIDS Council of Northeastern New York.

“We’re trying to have the users design the application,” Sockolow said. “If we bring the resources and they bring the people, we can work together to build something that help the people as best as we can,” she continued.

The pilot application, which is part of a suite of applications that Sockolow hopes to develop, is a game to help teenagers understand the different risky sexual decision making behaviors that make them susceptible to AIDS and HIV. The interdisciplinary research group, including Sockolow, Sandy Bloom from Drexel’s School of Public Health, Seran Schug from the College of Nursing and Health Professions, and  Jichen Zhu from Drexel’s Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts and Design and her students, is working with inner city teenagers involved with the AIDS Council.

“We’re at the stage where we just recruited the participants and we’re about to have our first session where the teens will help design the app,” Sockolow said. The teenagers will learn how to handle sexual decision making by navigating their characters through the interactive story. An example of a decision they could make is whether or not they should use a condom. They will have the opportunity to ask people in the interactive story for advice. Some may choose to ask their “wise aunt” in the story or their “jealous girlfriend.” The teenagers will participate in the development of the interactive story in a focus group moderated by AIDS Council staff.

In the focus group, the teenagers will create the plot design and develop the script through role-playing. The moderated focus groups will be taped and sent to secure Drexel servers for the research team to analyze. The Drexel team will watch the videos and ask the moderators for areas of clarification in the next focus group they hold with the teenagers. The researchers do not take part in the focus groups so that their presence will not affect the relationships that build trust within the focus groups. “This is a new approach to develop an app,” Sockolow explained. Sockolow wants the teenagers to get involved as much as possible so that the application will reflect the cultural nuances that will make the app appealing to other inner city teenagers.

The Drexel team has been working on the pilot application since the summer of 2013. This application is one of a suite of applications targeted towards adverse childhood exposure (ACE) survivors. “We expect other apps in the suite will include journaling and a trauma informed psycho-educational trauma intervention,” Sockolow said.

Sockolow hopes that the first application of the suite will be finished in spring 2014.