A University of Miami team led by a Frost institute for Data Science and Computing (IDSC) core faculty member has been recognized for developing an innovative mobile application to support sustainable environmental habits. “Social media research shows that mobile technologies can be effective in delivering habit-based interventions,” said Ching-Hua Chuan, Ph.D., assistant professor of interactive media in the School of Communication and core faculty member at IDSC. “We believe that small, but sustainable, changes by individuals can have a positive impact on global environmental challenges.”
Page/Johnson Legacy Scholar Grant
Chuan recently presented the team’s project, “A Theory-Based Mobile App Intervention for Forming and Sustaining Pro-Environmental Habits,” to the board of The Arthur W. Page Center at Pennsylvania State University. The School of Communication team–including Michelle Seelig, Ph.D., professor of interactive media; Sunny Tsai, Ph.D., professor of strategic communication; and Weiting Tao, Ph.D., associate professor of strategic communication–received a 2022 Page/Johnson Legacy Scholar Grant to design and develop the interactive media application.
The Arthur W. Page Center is dedicated to the study and advancement of ethics and responsibility in corporate communication and other forms of public communication. Since its 2004 founding, the Page Center has become an international leader in research on ethics and integrity in public communication. Over the past 19 years, the Center has funded nearly 300 scholars and awarded more than $1 million in grants.
“While university students and other Gen Z-ers
consider themselves environmentally educated,
their digital advocacy fails to align
with offline behavioral change.”
Motivating Gen Z
Mobile technologies are now an integral part of Generation Z (born between 1997 and 2012) users’ daily lives for work, play, and learning, said Chuan. “While university students and other Gen Z-ers consider themselves environmentally educated, their digital advocacy fails to align with offline behavioral change,” she added.
While most existing eco-apps focus only on calculating one’s carbon footprint, the new mobile app is designed to motivate Gen Z-ers to take daily actions to support sustainability through influencing problem recognition, perceived constraint, self-efficacy, and outcome expectations, Chuan said. On an organizational level, the new mobile app can provide behavioral data for companies to assess the impact of their sustainability communication, Chuan added. “This is particularly meaningful in overcoming the key challenges associated with the attitude-behavior gap in organizational sustainability communication evaluation,” she said.
Ambassadors for Sustainability
In designing the new app, the team choose three endangered animals as ‘ambassadors’ for sustainability: Sea turtles, which are threatened by ocean plastics; polar bears who are facing a warming Arctic climate; and tigers, whose jungle habitats are being cleared, in part, because of worldwide demand for palm oil products.
When users click on an animal, they receive a reminder of something simple they can do to make a positive impact on the global environment, such carrying a reusable water bottle, walking or bicycling rather than driving, or minimizing paper usage. “When they report their actions, they get a postcard notification from that animal saying ‘thank you,’” Chuan said. “They stay with the same animal for a week to reinforce that habit, and can then change to different animals during the four-week study period.”
Study Phase to Public Roll Out
To date, more than 150 University of Miami students have used the app during the ongoing study phase. Chuan said behavioral data recorded in the app, as well as self-reported surveys, showed the mobile app made users more aware of environmental issues and led to the development of better habits. Some students went beyond the sustainability behaviors suggested in the app, and made additional changes to their daily habits, she added.
“While we are continuing our research, we want to roll the mobile app out to the public,” said Chuan. “However, we need additional support to get this initiative to the next phase, and hope to continue our progress in the months ahead.”
Story by Richard Westlund | See also: “Research in Progress: A theory-based mobile app for forming and sustaining pro-environmental habits” (June 2022 | Penn State Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications)