The Role Of Technology In Teen Mental Health Support

11 Jan 2022
Explore how technology advances teen mental health support, from AI applications to digital therapy platforms.

The Impact of Technology on Teen Mental Health

In the digital age, technology plays an increasingly significant role in the lives of adolescents. The impact of this digital immersion on teen mental health is a critical area of study, with a focus on screen time and internet usage trends.

Screen Time and Mental Health

The increase in screen time among teens has been linked to various mental health issues. According to a study by the Yale School of Medicine involving more than 5,000 9- and 10-year-olds, it was found that time spent on digital technology directly correlated to the likelihood of developing depression and anxiety within a couple of years. It's important to note that digital technology use has stronger effects on short-term markers of hedonic well-being (e.g., negative affect) than long-term measures of eudaimonic well-being (e.g., life satisfaction). Effects differ based on the type of use, with procrastination and passive use associated with more negative effects, while social and active use are linked to more positive effects [2].

The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the rise in screen use for teens, with a 17 percent jump in entertainment screen use among teens and tweens between 2019 and 2021, compared to increases of 11 percent for teens and 3 percent for tweens between 2015 and 2019 [1].

Internet Usage Trends Among Teens

The internet is a significant part of teens' lives, with nearly half of all teens saying they use the internet "almost constantly" now, up from just a quarter of teens in 2014-15 [1].

Most adolescent digital technology use nowadays takes place on mobile devices, with smartphones playing a pivotal role. Commonly used digital services by teens include YouTube (85%), Instagram (72%), and Snapchat (69%). There are two main types of social media: social networking sites (e.g., Instagram) and instant messengers (e.g., WhatsApp).

Considering these trends, it's evident that the role of technology in teen mental health support is increasingly important. The next sections will delve into how technology can be harnessed to improve mental health support for teens.

The Role of AI in Teen Mental Healthcare

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is revolutionizing the way we approach mental healthcare, especially when it comes to supporting teens. By leveraging the power of AI, we can provide more personalized, accessible, and effective mental health support for teens. However, like any technology, AI also has its own set of challenges and risks that need to be managed.

Benefits and Risks of AI in Mental Health

AI technology in mental health can synthesize information from various sources, detect mental health issues early, and provide personalized treatment plans for teens. For example, AI can analyze data from wearables to assess a teen's mood and cognitive state, providing valuable insights into their mental well-being.

However, AI also presents several potential threats to teens' mental health. These include issues like cyberbullying with deepfakes, addiction to virtual reality, diminished creativity, and a lack of meaningful human connection. It's crucial to manage these risks effectively to ensure that the benefits of AI in supporting teen mental health are maximized while minimizing any potential harm.

AI Applications in Teen Mental Health

There are several ways AI is being applied in teen mental health. One key example is the use of digital chatbots. Research has shown that these AI-powered tools, including GPT3-enabled chatbots, have been associated with significant reductions in substance use occasions and even prevented suicide attempts among student users [3].

AI therapy apps are another significant development. These tools can be beneficial for teens with pressing needs, as they are accessible 24/7 through smartphones, offer anonymity, and can provide early intervention with mental health problems or recognize crisis situations. However, it's important to note that these AI tools cannot replace human therapists in providing true empathy and compassion.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) has expressed interest in the research on the utility and validity of digital health and AI tools in mental health. This includes epidemiological, clinical, and intervention research. In 2017, a workgroup released a report reviewing the opportunities and challenges of using new information technologies to study human behaviors relevant to the NIMH mission.

The potential of AI in enhancing teen mental health support is vast. However, as we continue to harness the power of this technology, it's crucial to address its risks and challenges to ensure it's used effectively and responsibly.

Effectiveness of Mental Health Apps for Youths

Delving into the role of technology in teen mental health support, a significant portion of this exploration involves understanding the effectiveness of mental health apps for youths.

Research on Mental Health Intervention Apps

The development of mental health intervention apps has seen a significant increase in the past decade. As per NCBI, a database search yielded 304 papers published from 2010 to 2021 on the subject. The final review included 10 papers on the effectiveness and efficacy of these apps for youths aged between 8 to 17 years. The apps targeted a broad range of mental health challenges including depression, self-harm, autism spectrum disorder, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. However, only a small number of studies suggest effectiveness, indicating that current research in this area is limited.

Efficacy of mHealth Apps for Teens

Over the past two decades, there has been a sharp increase in the development and use of mHealth apps. More than 10,000 of these apps are designed specifically for mental or behavioral health. However, research evidence supporting the effectiveness of these apps for youths with mental health problems is inadequate.

Despite this, the familiarity, ease of use, and near ubiquity of smartphone apps among youths suggest mental health treatment providers may benefit from incorporating mHealth technologies into their treatment strategies. The use of mHealth apps can improve treatment engagement and quality of care by providing continuous access to self-guided tools [5].

Some studies suggest that mHealth apps for mental health are associated with reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety, reduced frequency of self-harm, and increased coping self-efficacy. However, further research is required to confirm these findings and to overcome the inadequacy of previous research, which has hampered the wider acceptance of mHealth interventions for mental health in youths.

Research studies have shown that digital tools for youth mental health help young people feel less anxious, stressed, or depressed. Though more than 10,000 of these tools exist, only a small percentage have research studies showing that they work. Tools that involve a human, like a therapist or a coach who supports the use of the tool, are more effective than self-help tools. Digital tools with human support tend to be just as helpful as our best treatments for mental health challenges [6].

Virtual Care Platforms for Remote Therapy

As technological advances continue to intersect with mental health care, virtual care platforms emerge as a valuable tool in delivering mental health support, particularly for teenagers. These platforms, also known as telebehavioral health platforms, utilize technology to connect individuals with therapists for remote sessions.

Advantages of Virtual Care Platforms

Virtual care platforms offer several key advantages, particularly in enhancing accessibility and convenience. According to NIMH, mobile devices like cell phones and tablets open a new frontier in mental health care by providing new ways for the public, health care providers, and researchers to access mental health support, monitor progress, and enhance understanding of mental well-being.

One significant advantage is the ability to reach areas with limited access to mental health professionals. Frontiers in Psychology notes that over half of the counties in the United States do not have therapists available for young people. Virtual care platforms can bridge this gap, connecting teens in these areas with therapists remotely.

Furthermore, these platforms reduce the need for travel, making it possible for young people to receive services in the comfort of their own homes. This convenience can be particularly beneficial for those who may have transportation challenges or busy schedules.

Access to Therapy via Technology

The role of technology in teen mental health support extends beyond just convenience and accessibility. Technology also has the potential to help tailor therapy to the individual's needs and preferences.

Digital tools offer the promise of taking evidence-based interventions to scale, reducing disparities in access to effective treatments, and removing barriers to treatment resources [7]. This could mean personalized therapy plans, interactive tools to monitor progress, and resources for continuous support beyond therapy sessions.

However, it's important to note that while digital technology can significantly enhance mental health support for teenagers, it should complement, not replace, traditional therapy. It's crucial that teens have access to a comprehensive support system that includes face-to-face interactions with healthcare professionals and loved ones, alongside the digital tools available.

In conclusion, while the digital age brings with it its own set of challenges, it also presents exciting possibilities for mental health support. With the right balance, technology can play a critical role in enhancing mental health care for teenagers.

Co-Design of Digital Tools for Youth Mental Health

In the development of technology tools aimed at supporting teen mental health, incorporating the perspectives of the very individuals these tools are intended to help can be a valuable approach. We explore this concept of co-design and how tailoring tools to youth preferences can optimize the role of technology in teen mental health support.

Involving Youth in Tool Development

Co-design, a process of actively involving end-users in product development, is a critical component in creating effective digital tools for youth mental health. As suggested by Frontiers in Psychology, developers should work closely with young people to design solutions that align with their technological habits and their mental health needs.

This means that digital tools intended for youth should be youth-focused. It is often not sufficient to merely offer young people an adult version of a health tool. Instead, these tools should be designed specifically to cater to the unique needs and preferences of youth, which may differ significantly from those of adults.

Tailoring Tools to Youth Preferences

To maximize the benefits of digital tools for youth mental health, these tools should ideally align with the technologies and formats that young people prefer. Young people are skilled and comfortable with using technologies, and digital tools offer a convenient means of accessing mental health support.

However, according to Frontiers in Psychology, many existing digital tools do not match the preferences of young users. For instance, many tools rely heavily on text, while youth might prefer formats that incorporate audio tracks or videos. Furthermore, most tools lack customizable settings that can be adjusted to fit the user's interests and preferences.

As such, there is a clear need for more research involving young people to ensure the effectiveness of digital tools for youth mental health. By tailoring these tools to the preferences of youth and involving them in the design process, we can better harness technology to provide effective and accessible mental health support for this demographic.

Addressing Concerns and Future Research

Understanding the role of technology in teen mental health support requires addressing concerns and misconceptions, and acknowledging the need for future research in this area.

Small Associations Between Technology Use and Well-Being

Recent research has started to debunk the idea of a strong, negative relationship between technology use and adolescent well-being. Large-scale and preregistered studies have not found robust support for a significant linkage between adolescents’ technology use and their overall well-being. For instance, a study across three national data sources of adolescents in the US and UK demonstrated that technology use accounted for less than 1% of the variation in well-being. Another study of over 120,000 English adolescents found no robust associations between mental well-being and moderate use of digital technology, with measurable but small negative associations for those with high levels of engagement [7].

Furthermore, studies using daily diary and Ecological Momentary Assessment (EMA) methods have shown small associations between time spent using digital technology and mental health outcomes among adolescents. For example, one study tracking adolescents on their smartphones found that baseline technology usage did not predict later mental health symptoms, and there was no evidence that adolescents' reported mental health was worse on days when they spent more time on technology. Associations observed were small and in the opposite direction of recent concerns about digital technology harming adolescents' mental health.

Research Gaps and Future Directions

While these findings are encouraging, there is still much to be understood about the intricate relationship between technology use and mental health among adolescents. Future research should continue to explore this relationship, taking into consideration other factors that could influence mental health outcomes, such as the quality of online interactions, the type of digital content consumed, and individual predispositions.

Moreover, there is a need for more research on the efficacy of digital tools designed for youth mental health support. Understanding which features and applications are most beneficial, and how they can be best integrated into teens' lives, will be critical for optimizing the role of technology in teen mental health support.

The ultimate goal should be to harness the power of technology to create a more accessible, effective, and tailored mental health support system for adolescents. With continued research and innovation, this is an achievable and worthwhile endeavor.

References

[1]: https://adventisthealth.org/blog/2023/august/how-screen-time-affects-teens-mental-health-and-/

[2]: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7366938/

[3]: https://www.newportacademy.com/resources/empowering-teens/ai-teen-mental-health/

[4]: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/technology-and-the-future-of-mental-health-treatment

[5]: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10467602/

[6]: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/1169684

[7]: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8221420/

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