Visit the self-help section of your local bookstore and you’re likely to find thousands of titles ranging from coping with depression to parenting 21st century children (you might want to look for my book on that topic, Playing Smarter in a Digital World). What you will definitely notice is how many resources are available for adults who want insight into mental health and personal growth. You might find books written and published with teenagers in mind, but they are few and far between. The reality is, while there has always been a healthy supply and demand for young adult (YA) fiction, teenagers generally don’t like to read self-help books.
Reaching teenagers and tweens with self-help information would seem to find a perfect platform on social media and the Web in general. After all, this is where we find teens more than seven hours a day. But even with the pervasiveness of the Internet and digital technologies, there is a dearth of apps, games, and websites designed specifically for teenagers to help them with issues of mental health and personal growth.
In our efforts at LearningWorks for Kids, we look for tools to promote positive psychology and personal growth amongst popular games and apps primarily designed for fun or productivity. When teens are shown how to use these popular games and apps to practice and support executive functioning, social/emotional, and positive psychology skills they have proven to be very helpful. There’s still no question that in today’s stressful world, teenagers would benefit from having more tools available to them to address their emotional and mental health concerns. So why don’t they have them?
- Parents and educators are steering the ship. Adults, rather than teenagers, are the individuals who identify the skills that teens need to improve and develop. Teens need to be consulted to determine what they need and how to make new tools engaging. There are models for this type of peer-initiated engagement without adult involvement. Some of these models involve videos where kids teach others how to play video games using “lets play” videos. Websites and social media that give recommendations around other teenage activity such as music, websites, and social media can be very powerful. There are a few health websites where teenagers give advice to others, though these aren’t necessarily engaging large groups of kids.
- Where’s the money? Game developers generally need to see a profitable market for games, apps, and social media platforms. There seems to be a belief amongst game publishers that if games are good for learning, they won’t be popular or seen as fun. There is increasing recognition of the real cognitive and social/emotional development that can result from game and technology usage. While many schools have incorporated games and technology into classroom curricula, this movement is still slow-moving. Creating an environment in which the usefulness of games and technologies in developing mental health skills is widely recognized will no doubt be helpful. It will be necessary to influence game publishers to view games that promote positive psychology skills as both marketable and good for society.
- Talk to the players, parents, and practitioners. While we need to design technologies specifically for improving young people’s mental health, recommendations are apt to come from adults who have identified concerns or who want to promote personal growth, resilience, and grit. Parents, educators, and child care clinicians will be customers for these games and will need to know how to identify the best tools. The key is to create an awareness of not only how to choose the games, but how to use the games. It is not enough to simply create great tools and technology and then expect them to be used in the most effective manner.
- Where’s the marketplace? Developing a marketplace or a portal that provides information on choosing and using the best techs for teens is crucial. Simply adding more apps to a crowded marketplace is not enough to create successful businesses. Active blogs, experts in the field, support from the broader press, and close connections with stakeholders such as teens, game publishers, educators, parenting organizations, extended day programs, and schools will be vitally important.
Read our other posts about mental health technologies for tweens and teens, including:
Can technology improve the mental health of teens and tweens?
The Best Online Tween and Teen Mental Health Resources
Designing Mental Health Technologies for Tweens and Teens