Can Apps Help Youth Maintain Their Mental Health?

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You might be reading this blog post on your smartphone, not surprising since more than 80% of Americans own one. I have written before about the potential for smartphones as a delivery mechanism for mental health apps. We use our phones to do many things, track our steps, shop, text, talk to friends, check out our social media feeds, and get directions. What if our phones shared tracking data with our doctor? Would that feel cool? Or creepy?

A new paper in JMIR by Sigurd Melbye and colleagues in the Psychiatric Center, Copenhagen, examines smartphones’ potential for self-monitoring, treatment, and data sharing in youth with psychiatric disorders.

The systematic review focused on measurement via smartphone monitoring. While they found 2546 studies in their search, only 15 fulfilled the inclusion criteria, which included focusing on the results of individual studies, monitoring aspects for self-assessment, app-based treatment, and compliance with self-monitoring. These studies’ clinical areas were depression, anxiety, psychosis, eating disorders, autism, self-harm, substance use, and suicidal behavior in young people.

The authors note that most of the studies were published in the last three years, which points to how nascent the space it and most were feasibility trials. Overall there was a lot of heterogeneity in the studies, making it challenging to garner generalizable findings. Early signals point to the high acceptability of smartphone-based approaches in young people, a positive sign since 95% own a smartphone.

It is too soon to tell exactly where these tools can add value since the studies’ quality doesn’t meet the bar of evidence we usually use to determine value. That being said, early signs point to the potential of using smartphone-based approaches. This review included eight diagnoses, and it may be that data exists more strongly for depression and anxiety in the digital space but not yet for the other clinical domains. We can look forward to a lot more science in the forthcoming years on youth mental health.

Thanks for reading – Trina
(Opinions are my own)


Melbye S, Kessing LV, Bardram JE, Faurholt-Jepsen M. Smartphone-Based Self-Monitoring, Treatment, and Automatically Generated Data in Children, Adolescents, and Young Adults With Psychiatric Disorders: Systematic Review. JMIR Ment Health 2020;7(10):e17453 DOI: 10.2196/17453 PMID: 33118950

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