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Smartphone Self-Monitoring by Young Adolescents and Parents to Assess and Improve Family Functioning: Qualitative Feasibility Study

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The natural integration of mobile phones into the daily routines of families provides novel opportunities to study and support family functioning and the quality of interactions between family members in real time.


This study aimed to examine user experiences of feasibility, acceptability, and reactivity (ie, changes in awareness and behaviors) of using a smartphone app for self-monitoring of family functioning with 36 participants across 15 family dyads and triads of young adolescents aged 10 to 14 years and their parents.


Participants were recruited from 2 family wellness centers in a middle-to-upper income shopping area and a low-income school site. Participants were instructed and prompted by alarms to complete ecological momentary assessments (EMAs) by using a smartphone app over 2 weeks 4 times daily (upon waking in the morning, afternoon, early evening, and end of day at bedtime). The domains assessed included parental monitoring and positive parenting, parent involvement and discipline, parent-child conflict and resolution, positive interactions and support, positive and negative affect, sleep, stress, family meals, and general child and family functioning. Qualitative interviews assessed user experiences generally and with prompts for positive and negative feedback.


The participants were primarily white and Latino of mixed-income- and education levels. Children were aged 10 to 14 years, and parents had a mean age of 45 years (range 37-50). EMA response rates were high (95% to over 100%), likely because of cash incentives for EMA completion, engaging content per user feedback, and motivated sample from recruitment sites focused on social-emotional programs for family wellness. Some participants responded for up to 19 days, consistent with some user experience interview feedback of desires to continue participation for up to 3 or 4 weeks. Over 80% (25/31) of participants reported increased awareness of their families' daily routines and functioning of their families. Most also reported positive behavior changes in the following domains: decision making, parental monitoring, quantity and quality of time together, communication, self-regulation of stress and conflict, discipline, and sleep.


The results of this study support the feasibility and acceptability of using smartphone EMA by young adolescents and parents for assessing and self-monitoring family daily routines and interactions. The findings also suggest that smartphone self-monitoring may be a useful tool to support improvement in family functioning through functions of reflection on antecedents and consequences of situations, prompting positive and negative alternatives, seeding goals, and reinforcement by self-tracking for self-correction and self-rewards. Future studies should include larger samples with more diverse and higher-risk populations, longer study durations, the inclusion of passive phone sensors and peripheral biometric devices, and integration with counseling and parenting interventions and programs.

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