A multi-site pilot project developed by University of Alberta researchers is providing a breath of fresh air for children with asthma and severe allergies by helping them interact with peers online and boosting their self-confidence.
Children with severe respiratory problems can be socially isolated and feel a sense of embarrassment about not being able to participate in certain activities with other kids their age. The new pilot used the social network site Club Penguin and Citrix GoToMeeting to help children with asthma and allergies talk openly about issues and feelings in a fun setting.
"This type of intervention bridges some of the gaps of social isolation in a way that's fun and relevant to kids with asthma and allergies," said lead researcher Miriam Stewart, a professor in the Faculty of Nursing at the U of A. "It was designed based on the kids' own support needs and what they wanted in an intervention—and fun and enjoyment was a big part of it."
In the pilot, 27 children aged seven to 11 years participated in weekly online meetings with slightly older peer mentors. The meetings covered topics such as strategies for coping with asthma and allergies, role-playing and games to help deal with difficult situations, presentations by positive role models and, most important, having fun. Each session ended with kids playing on Club Penguin, a social network site where kids create penguin avatars that live in the Antarctic.
The study showed that children reported a sharp decrease in loneliness and an increased ability to tell people about their health and support needs. Children were more likely to talk openly about asthma and allergies and to use support-seeking coping such as reinforcing with friends the importance of allergy-friendly foods at social activities.
"That's really important because that was a major challenge for them, seeking support," says Stewart, who has coped with her own severe asthma and allergies all her life. "This pilot helped increase their self-confidence and reduce the loneliness they felt."
Stewart is now working with Anaphylaxis Canada and the Asthma Society of Canada in a followup study, funded by Alberta Innovates - Health Solutions and AllerGen NCE, on creating a sustainable online program for children and youth with severe allergies and asthma.
She and her interdisciplinary multi-site teams are also exploring ways to make these interventions more accessible for vulnerable populations, including Aboriginal children and kids from low-income families—projects funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and AllerGen NCE. It's the type of cross-disciplinary research that first attracted her to the U of A, she says.
"The ability to work with researchers from numerous disciplines has always appealed to me and was essential to completing this research. The U of A and the Faculty of Nursing have provided amazing opportunities for me and my work."
Stewart's and her colleagues' pilot research was published in the May issues of the Journal of Pediatric Nursing and Journal of Family Nursing.