Can video games, apps, and other digital technologies help teenagers become more optimistic, compassionate, gritty, and resilient? Can these tools improve attention span and reduce depression and anxiety? Can tech improve mental health for teens and tweens? New studies indicate that video games and other technologies can improve executive functioning skills that lead to better decision-making, improvements in psychosocial adjustment and task persistence.
However, it is clear that we are in the infancy of using technologies to improve the mental health of teenagers and children. In fact, most child psychologists and therapists have very limited knowledge of technologies that kids are using, nevermind how to use these technologies to help kids improve their psychological functioning. There also remains a great deal of skepticism about how technologies can help with mental health issues.
That being said, it is indisputable that young people are spending significant portions of their days with these technologies. According to a 2010 Kaiser Foundation study, tweens and teens are spending more than 7 1/2 hours per day engaged with video games and other digital media. While some scholars have questioned whether this focus on digital media is actually detrimental to the mental health of teens and tweens, from a pragmatic and efficiency standpoint finding a way to use technologies to help kids enhance personal growth and overcome mental health issues makes sense.
Traditional mental health providers have been very slow to embrace the use of technology to help children and teens. In fact,until recently, the telephone was probably the single most powerful technology tool that therapist used in their work with kids and families. Recently, some therapists have begun to use tools such as Skype, Twitter, and email to communicate with kids and families. Organizations like the Yale Parenting Center having embraced the use of new media to communicate parenting and mental health advice so they can reach a larger audience (though mostly parents), using a primary prevention model to improve the mental health of teens and tweens.
If we are going to reach teens and tweens directly, we will need to use technologies that are both engaging and meaningful to them. We will have to develop tools that can teach kids competencies they want to learn such as 21st-century skills that aid them in being successful socially, emotionally, and academically. Developing tools and technologies that improve self-esteem, encourage personal growth, and help develop self-awareness and empathy for others will be most beneficial.
So, can tech improve mental health? We will need to establish websites that are informative and that engage and respect tweens and teens. They can’t be full of text or be designed with overly simplistic cartoon characters. These websites and apps will need to use the type of content that tweens and teens consume such as humorous videos, engaging games, and social media tools.
This series will address many of the pressing issues involving the use of technology to improve the mental health of teens and tweens. Topics for future posts include:
Designing technologies to improve the mental health of teenagers
Innovative neurotechnologies for improving attention, learning, and executive functions
Using games and apps to improve grit, persistence, and resilience
How video games, apps, and screen-based media can improve positive psychology
What does the future hold for technology in teens: The Apple watch, fitness trackers, and virtual reality
Building generalization tools into new mental health technology for teens
Mental health technologies in psychotherapy for teens