Ecological Momentary Assessment and Teens


In several previous posts, we looked at Ecological Momentary Assessment (EMA) which is, among other things, a tool that helps researchers collect data. Today we scan two reports from the National Institutes of Health for details that may or may not turn out to be salient. In young fields like this one, many discoveries lie in wait. A researcher never knows what stray notion might collide with which unexpected finding, and set off a revolution.

The point of EMA is for the subject to pause, at predetermined or random times, and describe the present moment so that the subjective experience can be matched up with what’s going on in the universe right then. A 2009 study posited that:

To provide the most-effective weight-management interventions for children and adolescents, practitioners are encouraged to assess all factors that target weight-related behavior change.

But how? In a study that looked into the connections between behavior, emotions, and sleep in obese teenage (11-19) girls, the researchers found that “technological devices that gather objective data have reasonably high compliance rates.” Specifically, they were talking about the BodyMedia SenseWear Weight Management System, which monitors “calories expended, physical activity duration and intensity, and sleep duration and efficiency.”

An armband collects metabolic data, and a watch-type display gives real-time feedback on the steps taken and the calories burned. Together these are called an actigraph.

In the course of three long weekends, the 20 adolescent female subjects were asked to make 14 cell phone calls to report on their status. This particular study had no parental involvement with the weight-management protocol.

The subjects were screened to establish that they did not suffer from diabetes or cardiovascular disease, were not currently enrolled in another weight loss intervention, and were not suicidal. According to the study:

The intervention consisted of four weekly, four bi-weekly, and three monthly individual sessions. Information focusing on nutrition, PA [physical activity], and behavior change was presented in ~45-min sessions using cognitive-behavioral therapy and motivational interviewing followed by ~30 min of PA.

The writers of another multi-author study say that in recent years, the combination of wearable sensors and EMA has shown that a combination of the two technologies offers “tremendous potential for identifying drivers of human behavior and accelerating behavioral medicine research.” Their subjects were 20 adolescents (both sexes) and the researchers set out to “determine the feasibility and acceptability of a novel, intensive EMA method for assessing physiology, behavior, and psychosocial variables utilizing two objective sensors and a mobile application (app).”

This paper includes very detailed information on the methods and measures used, including context and location questions. Apparently, compliance was pretty good, because the report notes that the participants “provided approximately 81% of the expected survey data.” Overall…

The findings support the use of an intensive assessment protocol to study real-time relationships between biopsychosocial variables and health behaviors.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Utilizing Ecological Momentary Assessment in Pediatric Obesity to Quantify Behavior, Emotion, and Sleep,”, 12/17/09
Source: “The promise of wearable sensors and ecological momentary assessment measures for dynamical systems modeling in adolescents…,”, 09/27/16
Photo credit: Tony Hall via Visualhunt/CC BY

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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