Photo-manipulated selfies can provide adolescents an influential window into the wrinkled, sun-damaged future that may be theirs if they’re not careful, a new study suggests.
In the study, researchers found that Brazilian teenagers, especially girls, were more likely to protect themselves from the sun if they got glimpses of how sun exposure could damage their faces. “The intervention used in this study was effective in convincing a substantial part of the students to take up regular sunscreen use and to examine their own skin regularly,” they wrote. “Moreover, these effects were maintained for at least half a year.”
The, led by , of the department of dermatology, in the National Center for Tumor Diseases, German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg, Germany, appeared online on May 6 in JAMA Dermatology (2020 May 6. .
Dr. Brinker and colleagues launched the study in 2018 at eight public schools that serve grades 9-12 in Itaúna, a city in southeast Brazil, randomly assigning 1,573 students (52% girls, 48% boys; mean age, 16 years) to the intervention or control group.
Those in the intervention group attended seminars in which medical students showed them selfies of their classmates altered with a mobile phone app called, developed by Dr. Brinker.
The app, which takes the skin types of the subjects into account, was described by the Vice news site as “terrifying” in a 2018. It “could very well scare you into using sunscreen and wearing hats,” the author of that article wrote.
The app appeared to do just that – but not universally, according to the new study.
At 6 months, there was no change in sun protection habits in the control group. But among those remaining in the intervention group, the use of daily sunscreen significantly increased from 15% (110 of 734 students) during the 30 days prior to the survey, to 23% (139 of 607 students) at the 6-month follow-up (P less than .001), as did the percentage of those who performed at least one skin self-examination within the 6 months (25% to 49%; P less than .001). The students were slightly less likely to use tanning beds within the previous month (19% to 15%; P = .04); the researchers speculate that it’s easier to gain a new healthy habit than get rid of an old unhealthy one.
Girls were much more likely to change their habits than boys. The number needed to treat to reach the primary endpoint, daily sunscreen use, was 8 for girls and 31 for boys.
The researchers noted that the dropout rate was higher in the intervention group (17%) vs. the control group (6%). “The intervention may have led to strong adverse reactions in some students, leading to the observed higher dropout rate in the intervention group,” they wrote. Changes to the way the app is used could improve the dropout rate, but potentially hurt the intervention’s impact, they added.
In an accompanying editorial in JAMA Dermatology, two health intervention researchers wrote that “this work represents a needed shift toward scalable interventions that bring messaging to target populations using their preferred technology” (2020 May 6.).
Referring to the finding that sunscreen use did not change much among the boys in the study, the authors,, of the Institute for Collaborations on Health, Interventions, and Policy at the University of Connecticut, Storrs, and , of the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, Boston, also noted that “teen boys have been largely resistant to traditional and nontraditional forms of sun safety education.”
“Teasing out sex differences is important,” they added, “because sun protection interventions woven into existing programs at pools, beaches, and sporting events might be more appealing and enduring for boys, particularly if the technology they regularly use is leveraged.”
Dr. Brinker disclosed receiving an award from La Fondation la Roche-Posay, which also provided support for the study which partially funded the study, for his research on the Sunface app. The University of Itaúna provided other study funding. Several other study authors had various disclosures. Dr. Pagoto disclosed consulting work and personal fees from Johnson & Johnson, unrelated to the topic of the commentary; Dr. Geller had no disclosures.
SOURCES: Brinker TJ et al. JAMA Dermatol. 2020 May 6. ; Pagoto SL and Geller AC. JAMA Dermatol. 2020 May 6. .