Professional Spotlight: Dr. Tammy Chung and Substance Use in Young Adults

Tammy Chung, PhD

Tammy Chung, PhD

The SOVA team recently had an incredible opportunity to attend a talk by Dr. Tammy Chung and interview her afterwards. Dr. Tammy Chung received her PhD in Clinical Psychology from Rutgers University and is currently a Professor of Psychiatry and Epidemiology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Dr. Chung also serves as an Associate Editor for prominent journals such as Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. Her research focuses on adolescent and young adult substance use involving mobile assessment, neuroimaging, and candidate genes.

Her recent talk, “Mobile Health for Substance Use in Young Adults,” elaborated on a behavioral intervention for alcohol use using text messaging. This intervention aims to reduce alcohol consumption among young adults by helping them set a plan via text messages and monitor their progress. This intervention has effective results, but individuals differ in response to treatment. Hence, Dr. Chung’s research team is trying to make treatments more personalized and effective by studying factors leading to individual differences as well as by adding an app that includes collection of various phone sensor features.

We were able to gain more insight into substance use and Dr. Chung’s research from our interview. See what she had to say below!

What inspired you to the field of substance use broadly and how did you become interested in incorporating mobile applications into your research?

Dr. Chung says one of her mentors inspired her to study substance use. She feels grateful to those who have shared their personal stories of addiction and recovery with her, especially since it has been a steep learning curve for her without any prior family history of addiction. Because adolescents spend a significant amount of their time on mobile devices nowadays, Dr. Chung wanted to reach them through mobile apps.

jez-timms-773951-unsplashWhat is the importance of helping to reduce substance use behaviors in adolescents?

Adolescent substance use, especially early onset and heavy use, has negative impacts on brain structure, cognitive functioning, personal relationships, and physical health that can persist into adulthood. Research shows that reducing or stopping substance use can halt the occurrence of these harms to health and improve well-being.

What are signs that adolescents need to look for to realize they need help? 

Dr. Chung explains that major signs include feeling lonely and withdrawing from friends and family. They also include a change in appetite, sleep, or energy (especially when the change decreases concentration or increases moodiness). Finally, a significant sign is using substances to handle stress or feelings such as depression, anger, and anxiety.

What are the concerns with collecting personal data from smartphone? Did most adolescents not seem to mind the issue of privacy?

Some concerns with privacy include keeping data confidential and limiting the types of data collected. Dr. Chung’s research team has a National Institutes of Health Certificate of Confidentiality and follows secure transmission protocols. They also only collect “meta-data” or time-stamps of the frequency and duration of calls, but not the actual content of calls. They strive to be transparent, build trust, and engage individuals as active partners in research that aims to reduce harms to health. The participants understand the possible risks to privacy because they learn about what data will be collected and how it will be used before the study. Those interested in the study do not seem to mind the collection of personal data from smartphone because they are already accustomed to features such as GPS tracking from their social media usage.

emile-perron-190221-unsplashHow would you feel about participating in the study if you were an adolescent, considering that your personal information would be collected?

Dr. Chung says she currently has the app running on her phone and would be okay with participating in the study if the risks and benefits of having her personal data collected were explained to her. Today, people already leave digital trails frequently, such as when making purchases on the Internet. Therefore, if the digital trails can be used for a positive purpose, Dr. Chung would support that effort.

If there is an update to the app, what new features would you add?

One important new feature would be to include feedback on performance: how the person did in the moment (e.g., “Congrats!” “Try again!”), how the person was doing over time (e.g., in the past week), and how the person compares to other people (which might get tricky because it depends on the comparison group). People want feedback on their performance to “know how they’re doing” and to “be motivated” to do better.

If you have any questions related to today’s post, let us know in the comments below!

Moderator ★

Hi! The moderator is a research team member with a background in behavioral health. We're here to help answer your questions and stimulate some great conversation! We don't provide therapy and are not available 24-7 so please if you are in crisis, go to our crisis page: We look forward to talking to you!

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