Effectiveness of Web-Based Interventions

When a health problem is suspected, whether it is a mental or physical ailment, it is becoming increasingly common for the Internet to be the first line of diagnosis and treatment, even before a doctor’s appointment is scheduled. Often, individuals will use the information online to determine whether they need additional treatment or to seek out possible natural, at-home treatments.

A new body of research is testing the effectiveness of treating substance abuse online with web-based feedback. A study by Lee, Neighbors, Kilmer and Larimer in 2010 examined the effectiveness of a brief, personalized web-based feedback intervention on marijuana use.

The researchers recruited 4,000 participants that were first-year students at a university in the Northwest United States. The participants were given a screening survey that addressed past-90 day marijuana use, consequences of use and family history of use.

341 students were identified as having used marijuana in the last 90 days and had completed the baseline survey that was given about a month before the academic year began. Half of the students were randomized to participate in the intervention program, which included personalized feedback. The feedback was based on the responses on the survey. The other half of the students did not receive any feedback.

At 3 and 6 months after the baseline survey, the students received follow-up surveys. Retention for each of the surveys exceeded 94 percent. Each of the follow-up surveys also asked the participants about their marijuana use and the negative consequences of their use for the past 90 days.

The results of the study showed that the intervention did not produce a reduced marijuana use at either follow-up assessment. The researchers were surprised to find that marijuana use actually increased between baseline and the 6-month follow-up assessment, with no difference exhibited in those participants who received the intervention. However, students who had a family history of drug use that received the intervention did show a decrease in marijuana use.

The study’s results may be limited by self-report to gather information about the use of marijuana among the participants, because self-report in relation to illegal behaviors is often not reliable.

The authors of the study offered several possibilities to explain the results of the study. They believe that there may be merit in offering an in-person interview instead of a web-based system to provide more reliable feedback. They also believe that the timing of the intervention may be critical. Because marijuana use is highly social, it may be effective to provide intervention information at times of increased social interactions, such as evenings and weekends.