Designing mental health technologies for tweens and teens

21st-century teenagers use digital technology for virtually everything in their lives. It’s how they communicate with their friends, entertain themselves, keep track of their academic and after-school obligations, learn more about an area of personal interest, and see what’s going on in their world.

One thing I have noticed in my work as a clinical psychologist is how infrequently teens and tweens report using their tablets, smartphones, and desktops to learn about mental health issues. They are often uninformed about the learning, attentional, and stress issues that have brought them to my office, even though they are experiencing these difficulties on a daily basis. Based on these observations, it appears that they either choose not to use their devices as tools for more self-understanding, or that there is a lack of resources to help them — that no one is designing mental health technologies for tweens and teens. I believe it is more of the latter.

As connected as teens and tweens are to social media and online entertainment, they do not use the Internet to learn about their emotional well-being and mental health. They are more apt to ask their friends for support or talk to a school counselor or a family member. I am actually pleased that this is teenagers’ most common approach to seeking mental health advice, but I am also concerned with the limited information available online about their mental health. Like this post, most of the information and tools available online are not designed with teenagers in mind. Just like this post, they tend to be text-heavy, dry and humorless.

The same can be said for games and apps designed to improve psychological health and adjustment. Though many apps can  be used by teens and tweens who really want to make them work, most are made with adults in mind. Apps like Happier, Naturespace, and Calm, for example, are designed for adults or health care professionals. If we are going to make better and more accessible games, apps, and technologies that improve the mental health and resilience of teenagers, we need to consider how and where they already use technologies. Developers and publishers will also need to recognize what draws teens and tween to engage with games and apps.

Designers of apps and games intended to help teenagers with improving their outlook, creating a sense of optimism, and improving emotional and mental health should consider what makes a great video game. When teenagers are asked about why they play video games and apps they report it is because games  are fun, challenging, and present opportunities to explore and learn. Teens report that the best games are those that keep them intently focused and motivated. Their favorite games often allow them to be creative and test the limits of acceptable behavior. Games that make teenagers happy require hard work that they choose for themselves. Many popular games and apps allow teaming up with and getting advice from friends, which could be an important ingredient in mental health games and apps for teenagers.

The absence of mental health websites devoted to improving positive psychology and mental health issues in teenagers is also noteworthy. The best currently available websites tend to speak directly to teenagers. Many of these sites feature the stories of individual teenagers in which they describe their experiences. The best websites tend to limit text and give practical and easily-followed strategies. The use of informational and personal videos are a very powerful tool for helping teenagers feel as if their problems are not unique. Effective sites also provide teens and tweens with a space to talk to each other. By seeing how others experience some of the same issues, they are more likely to recognize that they can get better and understand the best steps to take in order to do so.

As new tools and technologies are designed to help teens and tweens improve their emotional adjustment and mental health, it will be important to keep in mind the games, apps, and platforms that they already love. Finding ways to use social media such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter as tools to communicate strategies for healthy adjustment is vitally important. Developing strategies for utilizing exercise bands and “smartwatch” devices in improving mental health for teens and tweens is also likely to attract teenagers to these technologies. There has been a lot of buzz in the past couple of years about games like Depression Quest, Elude, and Perfection, non-traditional games devoted to starting a dialogue about and helping non-sufferers understand the plagues of mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. But these aren’t games made with tweens and teens suffering from these issues in mind. We need to carry forward this momentum in lifting stigmas and reach young people who are struggling with emotional well-being by speaking directly to them.

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