Mobile technology use and mHealth text message preferences: an examination of gender, racial, and ethnic differences among emerging adult college students

Kristin E. Heron, Kelly A. Romano, Abby L. Braitman


Background: Mobile health (mHealth) interventionsare a potentially feasible way of targeting emerging adult college students’physical and mental health concerns, decreasing health-risk, and augmentinghealth promoting behaviors. However, there is limited evidence attesting toadvantageous ways of designing mHealth treatments in a manner that is apt to bewell-received by emerging adult college students at large, and gender, racial,and ethnic subgroups in particular. To address these research gaps, thisexploratory study examined general trends, and gender (male, female), racial(White, Black), and ethnic (Latino, non-Latino) differences, in emerging adultcollege students’ mobile technology ownership and phone plan characteristics,technology use behaviors, and mHealth text message preferences.
Methods: Participants included 1,371 collegestudents aged 18 to 25 (20.54±1.80) years. Between July 2015 and April 2016,students from three universities in the Mid-Atlantic United States completed anonline survey assessing technology use. Descriptive statistics and chi-squaretests were run to answer primary study questions.
Results: Results suggest that studentsfrequently engage with mobile devices and inherent features. Overall, nearlyall (99.5%) students owned smartphones, 89.5% had long-term phone contracts,94.6% had unlimited texting, and 38.6% reported having unlimited data plans.Further, 96.8% reported texting, 92.0% accessing email, 97.3% accessing theinternet, and 97.2% using apps on their mobile devices at least once per day.When asked about the types of text messages they would prefer to receive in thecontext of mHealth interventions, most students preferred messages that did notcontain textese, were longer vs. shorter, contained a single vs.multiple exclamation marks, had a smiley face emoticon, used capitalization foremphatic purposes, contained a statement vs. a question, were polite intone, and were non-directive. There was also multiple gender, racial, andethnic group differences in mobile device ownership and plan attributes, usagepatterns, and text message preferences.
Conclusions: The present research providesevidence that smartphones are commonly used by college students and may be afeasible platform for health intervention delivery among diverse studentgroups. mHealth interventions could use the present results to inform thedesign of future mHealth interventions and, in turn, increase theacceptability, usability, and efficacy of such treatments for college studentsat large and diverse student groups in particular.