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How to text yourself safe

Last updated 05:00 06/07/2014

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A university is trialling a plan to help drinkers avoid hangovers and harm by messaging themselves sober. Josh Fagan explains.

What advice would you send your drunk self?

A text-message alert service being trialled at the University of Auckland is posing that question and could hold some answers to curbing alcohol-related harm and dodgy decision-making while under the influence.

The "Spill It" program allows users to send pre-written texts to their own phones to encourage responsible drinking habits. Initial results show the personalised messages had a positive impact on people's behaviour.

A six-month study of 77 people who received scheduled text messages on nights they were drinking found a 23 per cent reduction in harmful situations.

Researcher Karen Renner said the aim of the study was not to discourage people having a drink but rather to see if the texts could act as a type of conscience to get people to call it a night.

Participants in the study who received texts reported being less likely to end up in harmful or embarrassing situations, such as missing work due to a hangover, or being involved in a fight or a brush with the law.

"The results showed that it did lead to an important level of harm reduction - probably more than I expected," Renner said.

The types of messages people sent themselves also reflected a range of approaches.

"Some were quite short and practical; ‘just one more' or ‘time to go home now' that sort of stuff. But some were very specific: ‘do not punch' and then someone's name."

Others tended toward more colloquial reminders not to be a "bitch" or a "sluzz".

"Even when the language used was, perhaps, rough, the underlying sense was that people cared about themselves enough to create messages to ‘stay safe'." The research was initially targeted at university-aged students but feedback came from all different age groups, including two 67-year-olds.

"It was an interesting mix. Some of the middle-aged people were getting messages set for 9pm on a Friday saying ‘time to go home' while younger drinkers were sending similar messages at 3am."

A full trial of the "Spill It" software will be completed by the end of the year. It is believed to be the first text-reminder service in the world using personalised messages to focus on safe drinking and could, eventually, be available to anyone in New Zealand to sign up to.

"The website is set up for that so that's quite possible. All we would need is the sponsorship from someone such as a telecommunication company to be able to do it."

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She said there could be enormous benefits in reducing alcohol-influenced injuries and violence.

"If we can replicate our 23 per cent reduction in harm, or even half that, with people using it around the country it could make a big difference to emergency services and hospital admissions."

The technology could also be applied to other areas, such as getting people to quit smoking, or take their medication.

"Anybody who needs reminders to do with their health could use it."

A randomly controlled trial was currently under way, testing more than 100 participants through the website www.spillitnz.co.nz.

- Sunday Star Times

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