Emily was feeling stressed – her day was not going well. She’d bombed her math test and had a fight with her mom over whether she could stay out later than usual the following week to hang out with some friends. She needed a moment to de-stress. Fortunately, it was in her pocket, on her phone – an app she had recently downloaded because her friend recommended it.
“I really appreciate the convenience… I can just whip [the app] out wherever, and I can just scroll through for maybe five minutes and then I can go through a quick guided exercise that just takes 30 seconds… even if it’s so quick, it’s still a refreshing few minutes that I got to spend.”
Thousands of mental health apps are available today, and teens are common users of these products. A report put out last year by Common Sense Media, Hopelab, and the California Health Care Foundation found that 69% of teens had used a health app and that sleep, mindfulness/meditation, and stress reduction apps were some of the most commonly used.
Not all apps are high-quality. Few apps are backed by science or have been subjected to rigorous evaluation to demonstrate their effectiveness. On the app stores, where most teens are accessing these products, apps are rated by star ratings based on consumer reviews, but user submitted reviews often do not speak to effectiveness or quality. Our team at One Mind PsyberGuide, in collaboration with UC Irvine’s Connected Learning Lab, recently released a report on digital tools and solutions for teen mental health to address this gap.
For this report, we reviewed 19 digital solutions for mental health that are specifically designed for teens. We also talked to teens, developers, and health care professionals to get their perspective on what’s working, what’s not, and what needs to happen in this space to make these tools more useful for teens. We found a range of products, though nearly all integrated mindfulness/meditation, and many were based on cognitive-behavioral therapy, a common technique for addressing mental health concerns. Although most of the products we reviewed had some form of evaluation, for many products this evaluation was not conducted specifically with teens. In general, we found the products could do a better job incorporating teens, from program design to evaluation to eventual marketing and deployment. Working with teens should start from the beginning, and continue through all steps to get effective products into the hands of those who can benefit from them. As one developer put it: “You might spend a bunch of money and time building something that isn’t even going to solve a problem for you. So that’s the first step. But then from there coming up with some ideas, co-designing with students, and letting them kill a lot of your ideas.”
Addressing teen mental health is a growing challenge and one that is not likely to be addressed by professionals alone. A range of options is necessary, and digital solutions can be one of those options. We highlight four key areas that need to be considered for these products to be effective tools in helping teens.
- Products should be integrated into spaces where teens are – this could include using apps along with traditional therapy but also finding ways to make these resources available in schools, online, or in other community settings like libraries or community centers.
- Products should be evidence-based, not just evidence-informed – mental health is an area sorely in need of innovation, but that does not mean that products should overstep the science. Teens should have confidence that products can actually help them. To support this confidence rigorous evaluation is needed.
- Products should be youth-centric – digital solutions should be developed with and for teens. They need to address problems that teens have and be designed in ways that make teens want to use and stick with them. Teens are sophisticated tech users and as such have high expectations of what tech can and should do for them.
- Someone needs to pay for the products – teens prefer digital solutions that are free, but designing, developing, and evaluating digital solutions requires sufficient budgets and resources that come with costs. We need to find ways to pay for these tools through insurance or Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program – but doing so will require reimbursement procedures and ways to identify safe and high-quality solutions that are worth reimbursing.
There are many apps for teen mental health and teens are interested in using them. We should all be aware that these solutions exist and that digital tools can be effective, but we need to have better ways to identify which ones are truly beneficial, and to help point teens to safe, effective, and engaging tools.