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Adolescents, Mental Health and Digital Technologies: What does the evidence say?

Would it surprise you to know that in Australia, two of the most important issues of personal concern to young people are coping with Stress and Depression. And when asked to list the three issues they considered were most important in Australia today, they listed Mental Health as number one. These results were published in the 2017 Mission Australia Survey.

But where do young people turn to for information on mental health? Here’s a hint – Australia has one of the highest penetrations of smartphones in the world – 9 out of 10 14-17 year olds own a smartphone. And internet and app usage on mobile phones now eats up, on average, about 2 ½ hours of our day.

So the internet and smartphones (especially apps) are frequent sources of information for young people on mental health concerns such as depression, stress and anxiety.

“Smartphones and apps are part of the psyche of today’s youth,” said Professor Helen Chenery,  Executive Dean, Faculty of Health Sciences and Medicine, Bond University.

“Websites and apps are so familiar to young people. The information is easily accessible – it’s not constrained by geography or finances – and it promotes feelings of autonomy and confidentiality.

“Young people may feel more comfortable seeking information on mental health issues online than making an appointment to see a GP, or to speak with a parent or a friend. They feel they can remain anonymous with their problem.”

Professor Chenery is a leading clinical researcher in language neuroscience and specializes in the area of language disorders that result from acquired neurological damage or disease. She has published in the areas of the neurobiology of language; the impact of neurobionics including Deep Brain Stimulation on language and cognition; digital health technologies and eHealth/mHealth practice.

Research published recently by Dr Oyuka Byambasuren and colleagues from Bond University which evaluated a range of health apps, found only one was effective, while others failed to spark improvements or made the problem worse. These findings extended to mental health apps also, and that may not come as a surprise to people from older, more sceptical generations, but young people have been shocked to learn that not all of the information they are gathering online is evidence-based, or even from reliable sources.

Dr Byambasuren’s review revealed that a breathing retraining app did not show any significant reduction in anxiety, panic and hyperventilation. Other apps for depression had high attrition with 80% of people dropping out over 4 weeks. Making unsubstantiated claims on the efficacy and usefulness of apps is not unusual. Remember when the US Federal Trade Commission fined giant app developer Luminosity for deceptive advertising relating to its ‘Brain Training” program?

Professor Chenery says there are more than 300,000 health apps available, most of which aren’t based on any scientific evidence; so how can we determine what apps or websites are safe and effective?

Well, she states that firstly we must develop a healthy scepticism and check off these few important points.

  • Is the app based on a scientific theory with an evaluation study conducted to establish effectiveness?
  • Is there secondary evidence of the apps’ authenticity – e.g., what type of partners are involved? Are they experts such as Universities and/or well regarded health organisations?
  • What are the privacy and data safety policies of the websites/apps?
  • And look for evidence of any conflicts of interests. Does the app or website developer have a known relationship with someone who will benefit financially if the app is said to be safe and effective? Look at the disclosures. Does the developer also have a relationship with an entity that will benefit?

Professor Chenery is conducting a Free Information Seminar at Toowoomba Grammar School, Assembly Hall on Thursday, 24 May from 7:30pm to 8:30pm.

She will discuss digital technologies, especially ‘apps’ and how adolescents can use them wisely; with a focus on adolescent mental health.

Professor Chenery has held a number of these sessions across Australia and New Zealand in the past year, and they have been very well attended by parents, teachers and students.

“The audience has always been very engaged and vocal,” said Professor Chenery.

“Most people can’t believe that what they’ve been accessing can do them harm (or more likely have no impact at all) because they put so much focus on the content and usability, rather than the facts.”

Professor Chenery said many people are also shocked to discover that there are no regulations for the people or organisations that develop the apps.

While there isn’t any evidence of death as a result of this, the potential is there.

“There’s the potential for harm because people simply expect the advice to help them, however it could delay them from seeking the professional advice that they may need, and it could prolong the conditions or discomfort they are experiencing,” said Professor Chenery.

She hopes her findings will lead to more educated and informed choices by young people when seeking treatment or advice on mental or physical health issues, emphasizing the importance of seeking guidance from health professionals when appropriate.