We face a looming mental health crisis induced by the COVID-19 pandemic. But tech experts and mental health professionals believe a new generation of tech tools could help increase human connection and promote a sense of wellbeing for our children.
As we move out of what everyone hopes will be the ‘last’ lockdown, we already know that the effect of prolonged isolation on children’s mental has been profound.
England’s Mental Health of Children and Young People (MHCYP) study found that the incidence of mental health problems in 5-16-year-olds has risen from 10.8% to 16%, with loneliness, disrupted sleep and fear of leaving the home prevalent among the issues faced.
Sean Herman is the founder of ‘healthy technology’ app Kinzoo and the author of Amazon bestseller Screen Captured, a book about how to help families explore the digital world safely. He says that, pre-COVID, mental health was not prioritised by technology developers, but believes that this is changing.
“I feel as if mental health support was, and still is, an opportunity area,” he says. “We have witnessed a few solutions begin to emerge in major ways – Talkspace, Moodfit and Headspace come to mind – but I feel as though we are only scratching the surface.”
A new generation of products in this area, could, he says, improve the way we manage our mental health using the same digital techniques healthcare professionals have had to use to connect with patients during the lockdowns.
“I feel as though a similar approach to counselling should make it more accessible and cost effective for everyone,” says Mr Herman.
Screen time can be good time
One of the issues that has held back developers from focusing more on mental health apps is the perception that ‘screen time’ is inherently bad, especially for children and young people, he argues.
“Unfortunately, most of the narrative has been on the negative effects of screen time as a whole, which has gained a lot of momentum despite very limited empirical, peer-reviewed evidence,” he says.
That conversation is changing though, with parents in particular “rethinking their and their children’s relationships with technology”, he adds.
Technology is a tool that can help a lot
(Bjorn Jeffrey, Toca Boca)
One way of improving your own family’s relationship with technology might be to use the Vodafone Digital Family Pledge tool to set ground rules for your family around screen time, healthy social media, and kindness online.
Björn Jeffrey, an entrepreneur with rich experience in media and technology, who co-founded the phenomenally successful children’s digital toy company, Toca Boca, agrees that there’s a new emphasis on the positive aspects of technology in relation to mental health.
“I think the pandemic has drawn more attention from parents on how technology can be used, especially in times of lockdown, where there are few other options. I think technology is a tool that can help a lot.”
Good habits, healthy behaviours
While kids can keep a daily mental health diary and meditate by themselves without technology, there is always the risk that this doesn’t happen – they can all too easily fall out of the habit.
“If technology can help to gently nudge them to ensure that the practice actually takes place, then that is very valuable,” says Mr Jeffrey.
Video chat and messaging platforms are also a great way to connect with friends and family and counter the isolation that can often exacerbate mental health problems.
“This is not technology in itself, but using technology as a tool to enable certain types of behaviours,” he says.
Dr Helen Maffini, child psychology expert and founder of the education training company MindBe Education, believes that in the absence of normal physical contact, digital interaction has actually been “very useful for us in maintaining our wellbeing and that of our children”.
“By finding the best in digital interaction and using it wisely, it can be a wonderful tool in the toolbox to help children and adults alike in their quest for good mental self-care.”
Apps such as Moshi Sleep, which helps kids with sleep and mindfulness; meditation app Headspace; and self-reflection digital journal DiaryZapp, are good examples of positive mental health tech that is available now, advises Mr Jeffrey.
And video chat apps, such as Kinzoo, facilitate family interaction in a safe way, all of which can cultivate better mental health, he believes.
Dr Maffini also mentions apps to help tweens and teens deal with anxiety such as SAMapp, as well as Motional and Bounce Together, which help teachers to monitor the mental health of their students – particularly relevant in the current climate.
“I expect to see more of this type of assessment tool that will help us measure our and our children’s mental health on a daily basis and show us strategies to help us improve our mental wellbeing where needed or when to seek professional help,” Dr Maffini concludes.
Virtual therapy and counselling have been growing in popularity, particularly during the pandemic. It’s easier to access and removes some of the barriers to seeking professional help. Plus, it tends to be cheaper and quicker to administer, the experts agree.
I’m excited by the notion of making help and counselling more accessible to everyone
(Sean Herman, Kinzoo)
“There’s a lot of movement in virtual therapy and counselling over text and video chat at the moment,” says Mr Jeffrey.
Kinzoo’s Mr Herman also believes in the ability of tech to democratise access to mental health resources.
“I’m excited by the notion of making help and counselling more accessible to everyone,” he says. “Screens present endless opportunities for meaningful connection, creativity and learning.
“I really believe that there are a magnitude of things that children can do on screens to boost their mental health, maintain friendships and build helpful skills.”
As we pick up the pieces post lockdown, mentally as well as economically, it is clear we’ll need all the help we can get.
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