Safe relationships: an app for young people

April 2016 Vol 16 (2)

PROFESSOR JANE KOZIOL-McLAIN, a longstanding researcher into family violence, is leading a research team currently working with young people to develop a ‘healthy relationships’ smartphone app to be piloted in schools next year.


Jane Koziol McLain CMYKTurning to an app, not an adult, for relationship advice sounds very 2016, with today’s teenagers rarely separated from their phones.

But Jane Koziol-McLain, the lead investigator of the research team developing a health relationships app, says the app is not designed to replace teenagers seeking advice from friends, family or the school nurse or guidance counsellor but to guide the young person to decide if, when and how to seek help.

The four-year, AUT-led project – funded by a research grant from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment – is drawing on indepth interviews with Northland youth about relationships by researchers Moana Eruera and Terry Dobbs in which young people stressed they “don’t want lectures and don’t want pamphlets”.
Koziol-McLain says the young people also made clear that while they want to go to whānau over boyfriend or girlfriend troubles, they fear that if they do that adults may dismiss or minimise the relationship.

So with young people using technology more and more to get help and health information, an app to guide young people through relationship concerns – and to also help adults and friends understand and better support them – seemed like a good idea.


The app project is also drawing on a major randomised control trial – again lead by Koziol-McLain – of an online decision-making tool called iSafe, which aims to help women identify their priorities, weigh the dangers of leaving or staying in an abusive relationship, and provide a tailored action plan if they decide to seek help.

Similarly to the Northland teenagers, research indicates that abused women sometimes have negative experiences when they first try to ask for help or tell their story – as people often minimise their experience unknowingly, says Koziol-McLain.

“Having a web-based programme means women can be safe from judgement and shame,” says Koziol-McLain. The iSafe trial, funded by a more than $1 million grant from the Health Research Council, saw 412 women recruited online – largely through advertising on Trade Me – and randomised to either an interactive decision science tool or the control, which was a safety planning website.

Koziol-McLain says analysis is now underway of the outcome measures (self-reported at three, six and 12 months after signing up to the trial), but anecdotal feedback has been encouraging, with women emailing researchers to tell them how helpful the intervention had been.

She says thinking about prevention of violence to women made the team think about the importance of the experiences of young people and adolescents at the time of their first relationships; and that led to the current app project for young people that will build on the iSafe findings and some overseas projects.

Koziol-McLain says high profile cases of what can go wrong for young people – like the Roast Busters and incidents of cyber-bullying – means the team will be working very carefully to ensure abuse measures used in the app capture some of the challenges faced by today’s adolescents.

Focus groups will soon be underway in secondary schools to start co-creating the healthy relationships app with young people to ensure it provides the information they want in the way they would like it delivered. The next step will be to pilot the app in eight secondary schools next year as part of a wider initiative to support healthy relationships for young people, “As an app by itself isn’t going to change things,” says Koziol-McLain.

Some schools are already using healthy relationship programmes like ‘Mates and Dates’ and ‘Loves-Me-Not’. The aim of the app is to provide both education on what is a healthy relationship and a pathway for young people to assess and act if their relationship is abusive and unhealthy.

It is important that the team also works with guidance counsellors, school nurses and others to ensure that clear pathways for seeking help are available and these support people have the skills to provide assistance without being judgemental or dismissive. And, of course, that young people have the confidence to put down their phones and ask for help when a relationship goes wrong. ✚



Researcher bio: Jane Koziol-McLain

From her early nursing career days in the emergency department of Chicago’s Mount Sinai Hospital, Jane Koziol-McLain had a questioning mind.

That niggling curiosity was the first step to a research career that eventually saw her receive a US National Institute of Health postdoctoral fellowship at Baltimore’s John Hopkins University at the turn of the millennium and brought her to Auckland University of Technology in 2001. She says she started small back in Chicago by getting involved in quality improvement, being active in the local nursing organisation, and being a keen reader of research “even if I didn’t understand all the nuances of research design at the time”. Then in the late 1980s she offered to be a research assistant before being a principal investigator in a nurse-led study of women who presented to ED with a miscarriage. She later gained her master’s degree and then her PhD through the University of Colorado, Denver.


One of Koziol-McLain’s ongoing research focuses – violence against women and children – grew out of her ED experience. The Colorado research team she was part of in the early 1990s was one of the first to ask women presenting at ED about partner violence. “It was just a life-changer for me,” recalls Koziol-McLain.

Her ongoing research work in the area has seen her win a research excellence award from the Nurses Network on Violence Against Women International in 2003 and do work in Kiribati, the Solomon Islands and Malaysia. Her work in New Zealand has contributed to the Ministry of Health’s Violence Intervention Programme (VIP) for district health boards. She is now a Professor of Nursing at AUT and co-director of AUT’s Centre for Interdisciplinary Trauma Research.

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