Teens are growing more depressed: could a mental health warning app help?

Nika wouldn't let parents read specific messages or actions. It only shows parents top line trends and insights on what it sees happening in the data. — Dreamstime/TNS

RALEIGH, NC: When Doug Kaufman left TransLoc, the Durham-based transportation technology startup he sold to Ford Motor Co, he thought he would take an extended break from the business world.

He even bought a farm in rural North Carolina, where he could take some time to recharge.

"I only made it about five months," he said in a video interview with The News & Observer," and it was not because I was bored."

Around the time he left TransLoc in 2019, Kaufman and his wife noticed a change in his teenage daughter's behaviour. Thinking it was just typical teenage moodiness, he decided it was just best to give her some space.

But that moodiness was actually a sign of a more severe mental health crisis for his daughter. Kaufman, who declined to share specific details, was shocked by the episode.

Kaufman has a doctorate in psychology, so how did he miss the warning signs? What could he have done differently to provide more support for his child?

These questions kept spinning around in his head, until he decided finding an answer would the next chapter of his career. He started to talking to other parents. Many of their children were suffering from depression and anxiety.

Statistics backed up what Kaufman was hearing. A Pew Research Center survey of American teenagers found 13% of them experienced at least one major depressive episode in the past year, up from 8% in 2007. And girls were three times as likely as boys to have experiences with depression.

"We need help in this area," Kaufman said.

Technology guarding against technology

Last year, he officially launched his new company, Vertroos Health, whose mission is to provide support for mental health in teenagers. The company recently launched a beta version of its first product, Nika, a platform that is designed to detect early warning signs of flagging mental health.

"I don't think there's one thing" causing mental health problems in today's youth, Kaufman said. It's more of a combination of many things.

"Technology is certainly playing a role, especially with mobile phones and social media," he said. "Kids are reacting differently, and they are even more isolated." Perhaps parenting styles have changed, he added, or we are constantly being inundated by news and notifications that cause stress.

But, he thought, perhaps there's a way to use technology to fight against some of the problems it is creating.

The Nika platform offers his approach to tackle it. The system analyses the digital activity of a teenager over time, such as their text messages, search history and social media use for signals that they could be on the path to a mental health challenge.

The program analyses these actions across 30 variables that are indicators of emotional, behavioural or physical health.

These variables were chosen after extensive research and consulting with advisers in the field of child psychology, Kaufman said. One of them, for example, is self-focused language. Nika could show trend lines in how much self-focused language a teen is using.

In theory, the platform could recognize negative behaviour before a parent or even a teen recognises it's happening. The platform could then connect a parent with recommendations on how to support their child, and tell them how to approach the subject. "So many parents say to me, "I don't even know how to talk to my kid."

Kaufman said the goal is provide them with the tools that help parents communicate better.

Not spying

Kaufman already is anticipating the pushback. The program sounds like a teen's worst nightmare. How many teens would relish the idea of their parents studying their text messages?

But Nika wouldn't let parents read specific messages or actions. It only shows parents top line trends and insights on what it sees happening in the data. As Kaufman puts it, the program is a trend reader — not a mind reader.

"There are parental control hubs out there that let you spy on your kids. That's not us," he said.

The company's onboarding process engages both the parents and the children for this reason as well.

"We get to know them," he said. "We talk to a lot of kids and say, 'Here's what it does and doesn't do.' Right now, your parents are looking at your phone. This thing won't allow them to what they do right now."

It takes a few weeks or months before the machine learning in the program develops a lot of its insights. But that doesn't mean the human factor is removed.

"A human — someone trained in mental health — actually goes through (Nika's) reports to train the machines," he said. But that analysis also "helps humans see what's going on with this kid and determine what should be conveyed to the parents."

The platform is still in its testing period. Fewer than 20 families are in its trial period at the moment, but the goal is to expand that to 100 families.

Since it is such a small group, Kaufman did not want to describe any specific outcomes that have emerged from the beta. But it already has been pulling helpful insights.

Kaufman hopes kids will learn to use it as much as their parents might. He thinks if it could be pitched as a Fitbit of sorts for mental health, more people would be open to monitoring their own passive behaviour.

Just like we can count our steps to track health, perhaps we could track our habits for signs of negativity.

You could look at the patterns and see, for example, that you have become more negative in the past two weeks and that you stopped doing a regular physical activity. Perhaps that is causing a problem.

"We want to point the patterns out to you," Kaufman said. – TNS

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