“Hey, it’s LionsCare checking in. Do you plan on drinking this weekend?”
Nothing screams Thirsty Thursday to me like receiving this text from LionsCare, Penn State’s new text messaging service that’s meant to help students make better decisions about alcohol use. After all, if one thing can discourage me from shotgunning a beer, it’s a text message from the university.
If the reason I decided to try this service isn’t obvious, it’s advertised with the question, “Would you like help reducing consequences related to alcohol use?” and I can only think of my Friday morning class as I desperately clutch a water bottle and plead with my stomach.
The service, as it’s intended to work, is pretty simple. It’s a 12-week program where you receive a list of questions on Thursday about your weekend drinking expectations and another set of questions on Sunday to review how much you actually drank over the course of the weekend.
Interested in the process as a whole, I decided to sign up. As for my expereince — well, see for yourself.
It started out pretty easy. Just text the word HEALTH to 412-906-4450 to register. After a short explanation, you submit your gender and you’re all set for the Thursday text.
That’s when the fun started.
The message clearly stated “We will check in with you this coming Thursday.” I started the program in October and signed up on a Thursday, so I wasn’t necessarily expecting a text that day. Which I guess was good, because I didn’t get one that day, or the next Thursday, or the next Thursday. Another staffer also registered for the program that same week and still hasn’t heard anything back.
About a month later, I finally received my first questionnaire — at 1 a.m. Friday morning when I was already drunk.
Because I didn’t receive the text for the first few weeks, I was only able to participate in 10 weeks. That didn’t make a difference anyway.
From that point on, I received the same three yes or no questions each Thursday. Based on my one-word answers, I would receive similar computerized responses every week.
The first three responses are usually the same. Then the fact/stat switches it up, straight out of a D.A.R.E. pamphlet. I like to imagine Dwight Schrute shouting in my ear for this part.
Responding no to the second question, “Do you think that you are likely to have more than four drinks on any one occasion?” or yes to the third question, “Are you willing to set a goal to drink less than five drinks when you are drinking?” draws a tip to limit your drinking like “Drink water in between drinks,” “Play a card game,” or something else that should be common sense.
If you respond no to the opening question, LionsCare sends a “Good job, keep it up!” message and skips the other questions, returning with the followup on Sunday.
If you thought Thursday’s LionsCare interaction was fun, you clearly haven’t seen Sunday’s.
This series asks you just two questions — how many drinks consumed and what time period you consumed them in. If you say you had more than four drinks at a time, the response might be something like “This amount is unsafe,” “It’s never too late to start fresh,” or “Think about how you got into this situation.”
If you made it through the weekend with less than five drinks on any given night, LionsCare is proud of you. Congratulations! You’ve officially earned the approval of an automated text messaging service.
But who does this computerized text-message stranger actually help? I think it’s safe to say most students know they should eat something before drinking, but whether they choose to follow that advice is a different story. Who reads “Think about how you got into this situation,” from a computerized system and thinks for the very first time: “Wow, how did I get myself into this situation?”
Simply put, University Health Services is wasting money on a computerized system that spews out stats and clichés. But that’s not saying UHS shouldn’t invest in other programs with similar goals.
Many Penn State students drink. Some students may not have a drinking problem, but still have a goal of consuming less alcohol in general. A text message warning probably isn’t the most helpful option.
Even without extensive counseling programs, any system that can go a deeper than a few weekly questions would be exponentially better.
If you’re still not convinced, here’s the message I received at the end of my 10 weeks:
I think this one speaks for itself.