Villanti Substance Use Prevention Studies' Novel Approach Keeps Youth Engaged

August 11, 2020 by Andrea Villanti

New findings from a collaborative Vermont study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research highlight how having a uniquely flexible survey instrument and using incentives can help capture the most relevant data and keep young Vermonters engaged.

Andrea Villanti, Ph.D., M.P.H. (Courtesy photo)

Published findings highlight best methods for recruiting and retaining young Vermonters

Ensuring the effectiveness of policies and media campaigns targeting young people is critical to achieving substance use prevention. However, standard state surveillance systems are often not nimble enough to capture quickly changing substance use trends, leaving decision makers without the latest data to guide state-level prevention efforts. New findings from a collaborative Vermont study, published July 20 in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, highlight the study’s uniquely flexible survey instrument and use of incentives to capture the most relevant data and keep young Vermonters engaged.

In 2019, researchers and staff from the University of Vermont and the Vermont Department of Health teamed up to create a cohort study of youth and young adults to evaluate responses to changes in substance use policies, communication, and interventions at the state level. Called the Policy and Communication Evaluation (PACE) Vermont Study, the effort uses web-based data collection, with surveys at three-month intervals to capture changes over time. The survey instrument was designed to assess emerging issues and topics not typically captured in state surveillance systems. The PACE Vermont pilot study in 2019 was funded by the Vermont Department of Health, the University of Vermont Cancer Center, and the University of Vermont’s Larner College of Medicine.

The newly published findings highlight the success of PACE Vermont in recruiting a web-based cohort of over 1,500 youth and young adults across the state to inform and evaluate substance use prevention efforts. There was excellent retention at six-month follow-up, with 72 percent (n=1,095) of the sample completing the final survey. The study also highlighted how best to keep young people engaged in the research over time: providing a $10 payment immediately upon survey completion, paying a bonus for completing all survey waves, and sending weekly survey reminders. PACE Vermont youth and young adults noted receiving online gift cards as their favorite part of participating in the study, followed by learning something new, and making a meaningful contribution to science or to the community.

“The success of the PACE Vermont Study is owed to true collaboration between UVM and the Vermont Department of Health and to our fabulous PACE participants,” said UVM Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Psychological Science Andrea Villanti, Ph.D., M.P.H., a member of the Vermont Center on Behavior and Health and co-leader of the Cancer Control and Population Health Sciences Program at the UVM Cancer Center. “For all of us working on PACE Vermont, the most exciting part is collecting and using data to inform substance use prevention efforts in Vermont in real-time.”

Earlier this spring, the PACE Vermont team received funding (R21DA051943, U54DA036114) from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of the National Institutes of Health, to conduct two studies. They will be recruiting approximately 1,200 youth (aged 12-17) and young adults (aged 18-25) for these research studies through July 2020 via

The PACE Vermont Study will assess perceptions and problems associated with vaping in youth and young adults in young Vermonters aged 12-25. Participants will complete three 10- to 15-minute online surveys over a six-month period. Participants will receive a $10 online gift card for each survey completed, plus a $20 bonus for completing all three surveys, for a total of $50. Parents need to first provide permission for their minor children to participate in the PACE Vermont Study. They will have access to the study’s progress and key findings on the PACE Vermont social media sites. Individual survey responses are confidential.

The PACE Vape Messaging Study will focus on identifying effective vaping prevention messaging in Vermont young adults aged 18-24 years old. Participants will complete two brief 10- to 15-minute surveys over a one-month period. Participants will receive a $10 online gift card for completing the first survey and a $15 online gift card for completing the second, for a total of $25.