Professor developing mobile app to help break cycle of domestic violence

More than 40 percent of mothers in the United States experience some form of intimate partner violence (IPV), affecting 15 million children and adolescents. 

Both victims of abuse and their children who witness it suffer increased poor physical and mental health, high-risk behaviors such as substance abuse, and vulnerability to intimate partner violence in the future.

Dr. Trace Kershaw, Professor of Social and Behavioral Sciences, will develop a data-driven behavioral intervention using a mobile app designed to improve decision-making for mothers and daughters exposed to violence in the home and reduce high-risk behaviors and future intimate partner violence. 

"Female adolescents affected by violence in their homes are particularly vulnerable to unwittingly accepting a negative cycle that can have widespread influence on the health and well-being of women across generations," Kershaw said. "We are focusing on mothers and daughters because it is essential to end this cycle." 

Kershaw and his doctoral student Tiara Willie will develop the first family-based intimate partner violence intervention using interactive video graphic novellas in which participants can choose a character like themselves, make behavioral choices that lead to positive or negative consequences, and then learn from the choices they make. 

"This approach recognizes that IPV does not occur in isolation, that parent-child relationships are key to overcoming obstacles, and that technology easily disseminates the intervention, increasing its overall impact and reach for families," Willie said. 

Research has shown that graphic novellas make it easier for people to grasp complex health messages and that interactivity helps personalize the experience and improve the participants’ comfort and understanding of how to make healthier choices, Kershaw said, adding that putting the intervention on a smartphone greatly increases its impact and reach. 

In New Haven, more than 85 percent of the target audience of low-income adolescents, emerging adults, and young parents have access to a smartphone. 

To create the app, Kershaw and Willie will assemble a community advisory board composed of two experts in intimate partner violence research, two adolescents and two mothers who have been exposed to intimate partner violence, two social workers, a creative writing expert, and an expert in graphic novellas. 

The researchers will test the usability of the app with five pairs of mothers and daughters before testing acceptability, feasibility, and satisfaction with 15 mother-daughter pairs over eight weeks. 

"By working with mothers and daughters at the same time, we hope to strengthen their relationship and their ability to respond to the negative effects of violence," Kershaw said. "With new skills and confidence, both mothers and daughters will hopefully better avoid violence in future relationships."  

Women’s Health Research at Yale’s Pilot Project Program 

  • Can a better understanding of the colon’s digestive chemistry uncover early signs and sex-specific causes of colon cancer to aid in prevention and treatment of this disease? 
  • Can an affordable, rapid, noninvasive, and potentially self-administered test available to pregnant women prevent the spread of viral infections and preterm births? 
  • Can a mobile phone app featuring an interactive character-based story help break the transgenerational cycle of intimate partner violence? 

"When it comes to biology and behavior, women and men are not identical," said Dr. Carolyn M. Mazure, Director of WHRY. "For the 20th year, WHRY is sparking innovation with studies designed to develop the best practices for detecting and treating diseases and conditions that may affect women and men differently."

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