Digital interventions to moderate physical inactivity and/or nutrition in young people: a Cancer Prevention Europe overview of systematic reviews

Kevin T McDermott*, Caro Noake, Robert Wolff, Linda Bauld, Carolina Espina, Jérôme Foucaud, Karen Steindorf, Mangesh A Thorat, Matty P Weijenberg, Joachim Schüz, Jos Kleijnen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

BACKGROUND: Strategies to increase physical activity (PA) and improve nutrition would contribute to substantial health benefits in the population, including reducing the risk of several types of cancers. The increasing accessibility of digital technologies mean that these tools could potentially facilitate the improvement of health behaviours among young people.

OBJECTIVE: We conducted a review of systematic reviews to assess the available evidence on digital interventions aimed at increasing physical activity and good nutrition in sub-populations of young people (school-aged children, college/university students, young adults only (over 18 years) and both adolescent and young adults (<25 years)).

METHODS: Searches for systematic reviews were conducted across relevant databases including KSR Evidence (, Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (CDSR) and Database of Abstracts of Reviews of Effects (DARE; CRD). Records were independently screened by title and abstract by two reviewers and those deemed eligible were obtained for full text screening. Risk of bias (RoB) was assessed with the Risk of Bias Assessment Tool for Systematic Reviews (ROBIS) tool. We employed a narrative analysis and developed evidence gap maps.

RESULTS: Twenty-four reviews were included with at least one for each sub-population and employing a range of digital interventions. The quality of evidence was limited with only one of the 24 of reviews overall judged as low RoB. Definitions of "digital intervention" greatly varied across systematic reviews with some reported interventions fitting into more than one category (i.e., an internet intervention could also be a mobile phone or computer intervention), however definitions as reported in the relevant reviews were used. No reviews reported cancer incidence or related outcomes. Available evidence was limited both by sub-population and type of intervention, but evidence was most pronounced in school-aged children. In school-aged children eHealth interventions, defined as school-based programmes delivered by the internet, computers, tablets, mobile technology, or tele-health methods, improved outcomes. Accelerometer-measured (Standardised Mean Difference [SMD] 0.33, 95% Confidence Interval [CI]: 0.05 to 0.61) and self-reported (SMD: 0.14, 95% CI: 0.05 to 0.23) PA increased, as did fruit and vegetable intake (SMD: 0.11, 95% CI: 0.03 to 0.19) (review rated as low RoB, minimal to considerable heterogeneity across results). No difference was reported for consumption of fat post-intervention (SMD: -0.06, 95% CI: -0.15 to 0.03) or sugar sweetened beverages(SSB) and snack consumption combined post-intervention (SMD: -0.02, 95% CI:-0.10 to 0.06),or at the follow up (studies reported 2 weeks to 36 months follow-up) after the intervention (SMD:-0.06, 95% CI: -0.15 to 0.03) (review rated low ROB, minimal to substantial heterogeneity across results). Smartphone based interventions utilising Short Messaging Service (SMS), app or combined approaches also improved PA measured using objective and subjective methods (SMD: 0.44, 95% CI: 0.11 to 0.77) when compared to controls, with increases in total PA [weighted mean difference (WMD) 32.35 min per day, 95% CI: 10.36 to 54.33] and in daily steps (WMD: 1,185, 95% CI: 303 to 2,068) (review rated as high RoB, moderate to substantial heterogeneity across results). For all results, interpretation has limitations in terms of RoB and presence of unexplained heterogeneity.

CONCLUSIONS: This review of reviews has identified limited evidence that suggests some potential for digital interventions to increase PA and, to lesser extent, improve nutrition in school-aged children. However, effects can be small and based on less robust evidence. The body of evidence is characterised by a considerable level of heterogeneity, unclear/overlapping populations and intervention definitions, and a low methodological quality of systematic reviews. The heterogeneity across studies is further complicated when the age (older vs. more recent), interactivity (feedback/survey vs. no/less feedback/surveys), and accessibility (type of device) of the digital intervention is considered. This underscores the difficulty in synthesising evidence in a field with rapidly evolving technology and the resulting challenges in recommending the use of digital technology in public health. There is an urgent need for further research using contemporary technology and appropriate methods.

Original languageEnglish
Article number1185586
Number of pages18
JournalFrontiers in digital health
Publication statusPublished - 4 Jul 2023

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • digital health
  • diet
  • physical activity
  • cancer
  • systematic reviews
  • public health
  • evidence synthesis
  • evidence appraisal


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