Fort Worth, Texas,
11:25 AM

Diabetes care is still difficult. Even in the age of tech.

Why teens with Type 1 diabetes aren't taking advantage of technology

TECHNOLOGY ... I believe it's the key to the next leap forward in diabetes care. I’m always on the lookout for news on how new technologies such as the artificial pancreas project will improve the lives of those with Type 1 diabetes. So a recent research survey on technology use by teens with Type 1 diabetes got my attention.

Wanting to learn more, I contacted the lead researcher, Shelagh Mulvaney to ask her about her results. Shelagh is no stranger to diabetes care. Her career as a research psychologist has been spent studying behavior change in chronic condition management including Type 1 diabetes. She is interested to learn how technology use can make these types of changes.

You would think it’s the wave of the future, right? This is the technological age and most 6 year olds know how to work a smart phone better than most adults. You would think the teens who participated in this survey would jump at the chance to use technology to help them with their diabetes care.

At least that’s what I would have thought before Shelaugh’s survey. The participants used the technology as you would expect based on how digitally plugged in most teens are. But a barrier occurred when it came to the teens wanting to share their life challenges and sharing on social media.

Why is that the case? I wanted to know more so I contacted Shelagh, who was kind of enough to speak with speak me about her work and its significance.

Me: Tell me about your survey.

Mulvaney: Our goal was to enhance website and mobile programs to support self-care in teens with Type 1 diabetes. To accomplish the aim, we did an initial survey. The survey was a challenge because we had to create a questionnaire and scales from scratch to learn how teens use a variety of technology, including social media to support themselves in daily diabetes care.

Me: How did the survey work?

Mulvaney: We surveyed 174 teens from the Vanderbilt diabetes clinic, as well others from the children’s diabetes website (CWD) group, asking them a variety of questions on how they used technology in care of their diabetes. We also did additional face-to-face interviews of 26 teens who had been classified by the online survey as low, medium and high users of technology.

Me: What did you find?

Mulvaney: Teens will find technology to address a pressing need. In this case, the survey did show that most of the teens surveyed use common technology tools to simplify the often complicated task of calculating insulin doses or looking up carbohydrate amounts in food.

Me: The social media use part of the survey gained the most attention in the news. With a recent report that 9 out of 10 teens use social media, I’m interested to hear how teens with Type 1 diabetes used social media.

Mulvaney: Surprisingly, social media use to aid in diabetes care was seldom used. Only about 70 percent of the participants said that they used social media, but use of social media for specific diabetes issues was very rare.

Some of the reasons given for not using social media included”

  • Lack of time
  • Boring
  • Never thought about it
  • Don’t know what websites
  • Don’t like to talk or think about having a chronic condition
  • Or mom takes care of it

Teens said that they didn’t know anyone else with diabetes or felt that someone without Type 1 diabetes just couldn’t relate to their life when asked why they didn’t use social media specifically to help in their diabetes care.

Me: So, it sounds like use of social media to improve diabetes care is not going anywhere fast?

Mulvaney: Teens with type 1 aren’t completely closed to social media as an aid in diabetes care. We did find a sizeable number of teens who were willing to share with others on social media, even details about how they care for themselves, if it would help other children or teens with Type 1.

Me: How would you sum this up?

Mulvaney: It’s hard to make diabetes exciting. Technology has to make something easier, less cumbersome, less complex …THAT will motivate teens.

I continue to believe in the opportunities that technology creates to improve diabetes care. I’m an optimist. I hope that maybe with time and education by medical professionals, young people will take advantage of tools available to them as they expand at an amazing speed. Yet, the human factor – family, friends, others with type 1 diabetes – remains an important part in maintaining consistency and motivation in teens with Type 1 striving for the highest level of health. It’s hard to compete with good, old fashioned peer pressure. Social media is unlikely to fully replace the personal touch. We have to remove the stigma that these kids have about their disease. But continued research like Dr. Mulvaney’s will help all of us maximize technology use in the care of Type 1 diabetes.

About the author

As a self-described ‘techie,’ Joel Steelman, M.D., has a keen interest in the wise use of technology to improve medical care. Since 2001, he has helped implement electronic medical recordkeeping in two endocrine practices.


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