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A theory-based online health behavior intervention for new university students: study protocol

Tracy Epton1*, Paul Norman1, Paschal Sheeran1, Peter R Harris2, Thomas L Webb1, Fabio Ciravegna3, Alan Brennan4, Petra Meier4, Steven A Julious4, Declan Naughton5, Andrea Petroczi5, Aba-Sah Dadzie3 and Jen Kruger4

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Psychology, University of Sheffield, Western Bank, Sheffield S10 2TP, UK

2 School of Psychology, University of Sussex, Falmer, BN1 9QH, UK

3 Department of Computer Science, University of Sheffield, Regent Court, Sheffield, S1 4DA, UK

4 School of Health and Related Research, University of Sheffield, Regent Court, Sheffield, S1 4DA, UK

5 School of Life Science, Kingston University, Penrhyn Road, Kingston upon Thames, KT1 2EE, UK

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BMC Public Health 2013, 13:107  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-13-107

Published: 5 February 2013



Too few young people engage in behaviors that reduce the risk of morbidity and premature mortality, such as eating healthily, being physically active, drinking sensibly and not smoking. The present research developed an online intervention to target these health behaviors during the significant life transition from school to university when health beliefs and behaviors may be more open to change. This paper describes the intervention and the proposed approach to its evaluation.


Potential participants (all undergraduates about to enter the University of Sheffield) will be emailed an online questionnaire two weeks before starting university. On completion of the questionnaire, respondents will be randomly assigned to receive either an online health behavior intervention (U@Uni) or a control condition. The intervention employs three behavior change techniques (self-affirmation, theory-based messages, and implementation intentions) to target four heath behaviors (alcohol consumption, physical activity, fruit and vegetable intake, and smoking). Subsequently, all participants will be emailed follow-up questionnaires approximately one and six months after starting university. The questionnaires will assess the four targeted behaviors and associated cognitions (e.g., intentions, self-efficacy) as well as socio-demographic variables, health status, Body Mass Index (BMI), health service use and recreational drug use. A sub-sample of participants will provide a sample of hair to assess changes in biochemical markers of health behavior. A health economic evaluation of the cost effectiveness of the intervention will also be conducted.


The findings will provide evidence on the effectiveness of online interventions as well as the potential for intervening during significant life transitions, such as the move from school to university. If successful, the intervention could be employed at other universities to promote healthy behaviors among new undergraduates.

Trial registration

Current Controlled Trials, ISRCTN67684181.

Randomized controlled trial; Young people; Internet; Self-affirmation; Theory of planned behavior; Implementation intentions; Alcohol; Fruit and vegetables; Exercise; Smoking