Dr. Widman's research focuses primarily on adolescent sexual health, sexual communication processes, and the primary prevention of HIV, other STDs, and teen pregnancy. Dr. Widman's goal is to apply psychological theories and sexual health principles to contribute to basic social science and behavioral interventions that reduce the incidence of HIV/STDs and unintended pregnancy among youth. Her recent research has focused on the development and evaluation of a web-based sexual health program for teens, called Project HEART. 


Project HEART. Project Heart is an interactive, web-based sexual health program for high school students. Grounded in psychological and health behavior change theories, the purpose of this 45-minute program is to increase adolescents’ motivation and skills to engage in safer sexual behavior. The web program has five modules to enhance five areas of sexual decision-making: 1) health-related motivation, 2) HIV/STI knowledge, 3) self-efficacy, 4) social norms, and 5) sexual communication skills. Within each module, material is presented using brief bulleted text with matching audio, along with engaging features such as audio and video clips, interactive information sheets, quizzes, games, and skill-building exercises. We developed the "HEART for girls" in 2014 and adapted it for all teens ("HEART for teens") in 2017. We have evaluated the program among high school students and a sample of at-risk community youth and found very promising effects. In the coming years, we will continue to enhance the program and work on broader implementation.

Project Heart is funded by NIH/NICHD (K99/R00 HD075654, PI: Widman)

Laura and John Arnold Foundation Grant. This study is a randomized controlled trial (RCT) comparing the HEART sexual health intervention to Healthy Minds, a growth mindset intervention for high school students designed to reduce rates of clinical depression. We are recruiting approximately 650 students from 4 North Carolina high schools to participate in this study. Students will be assessed at pre-test, immediate post-test after completing either the HEART program or the Healthy Minds program, and again at 12-months and 18-months.

Meta-Analysis Projects. Our research team is actively involved in reviewing and synthesizing the literature on adolescent sexual health. We have published a meta-analysis in Health Psychology that on the research linking adolescents’ sexual communication with sexual partners to condom use. We also published a meta-analysis on on adolescent-parent sexual communication in JAMA Pediatrics. In 2018, our team published a meta-analysis that examined the effectiveness of technology-based sexual health programs for youth in the Journal of Adolescent Health.  Most recently, we completed a project to better understand the effectiveness of parent-based sexual health interventions for adolescents. The meta-analysis was also accepted to JAMA Pediatrics.

Teen Health Studies. Our lab has a number of ongoing projects related to teen health, including some recent work to tackle the opioid crisis among rural youth.  We partnered with a local school district to deliver and evaluate "This is (Not) About Drugs", an opioid misuse prevention program to nearly 700 seventh grade students in Fall 2018 and Spring 2019. Initial results are promising - after taking the program, students scored significantly higher on knowledge about opioids, perceived ability to resist peer pressure around opioids, and confidence to avoid opioid misuse in the future. Next steps for us include conducting qualitative interviews with key stakeholders, and adapting the program/developing new program materials in the long term.

Last updated:

August 2019