APPLETON, Wis.— Dr. Lori Hilt came up with her own version of, “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.”
Hilt, an associate professor of psychology at Lawrence University in Appleton, has studied adolescent rumination for the past several years and just returned from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America Conference in Denver.
There, she presented her findings of a three-year study showing that using mindfulness techniques brings positive results for young teens navigating the quagmire that is adolescence. And they can find those techniques in an app on— what often is the source for much of that angst— their smartphone.
Adolescent rumination occurs when your child can’t get past the negative events happening in their life. Some kids can process a negative experience and then move on. But those that battle rumination will dwell on the negative, playing it over and over in their mind, unable to let it go.
It can lead to depression, anxiety or other mental health issues that can follow them into adulthood.
Hilt said epidemiological data shows low levels of depression in childhood, but beginning around age 15 it spikes until about age 18, before tapering off to varying degrees.
“So what I’ve focused on is, ‘What can we do in that period leading up to that?’’’ said Hilt. “Where can we give kids some skills to manage those negative emotions that are going to come up during middle school and puberty and all the other stressors that kids are going through during that time period? Can we do something earlier on to kind of prevent that spike from happening?’’
Hilt and her Child and Adolescent Research in Emotion lab at Lawrence created a mobile app.
“There’s one researcher whose work I’ve read, Jean Twenge, and she talks a lot about the ‘I’ generation,” said Hilt. “The kids who’ve grown up as digital natives. We’re seeing some of the negative effects that go along with that, the constant scrutiny and surveillance, and I’m compelled by that argument.”
“And that’s why I think, because rather than think, ‘Oh, then we should ban phones or try to get rid of social media’ — which I think you’re fighting an uphill battle — let’s provide resources as well in these platforms. And so, having mental health apps — and a lot of kids now are accessing resources on their phones — and so, the more that we can give them scientifically, valid ways to manage their emotions, I think the better we’re going to be in trying to balance that out.”
With a huge assist from the National Institutes of Health in the form of a $368,196 grant, Hilt and her team worked with 150 Fox Valley kids between the ages of 12 and 15.
“So everyone did the same length of the study,” said Hilt. “And so, they came into the lab and they used the app for three weeks. And then we followed them, at six weeks, 12 weeks and six months. Some of the data, we showed the effects (from using the app) for rumination and those effects lasted about six weeks after the intervention. The only difference is that you got randomly assigned either to the control group or the mindfulness group. But both involved using an app for the same amount of time, so that was the only difference.”
The app takes users through short mindfulness exercises at different points of the day: When they wake up, after school and before bed. The exercises use breathing techniques and other methods that help clear or refocus the mind.
Nina Austria, who was a member of Hilt’s CARE lab, said she’s contemplated the use of data analysis to examine the effects of social media and other technologies on teenagers’ well-being and mental health since high school. She said she believes her work on this project can help teenagers cope in the future; an opportunity not every college student gets to experience.
“I think a mindfulness mobile app is such a simple and convenient tool for helping ruminative adolescents to manage their emotions, and it is something that most adolescents can access so easily on their devices,” Austria said. “Working on this project has given me the opportunity to work on data analysis and coding outside of a classroom setting but, more importantly, I feel like we are exploring ways to be proactive about adolescent mental health, which is so critical right now.”
Hilt said she wanted to implement some suggestions from the study participants and their parents to improve the app before making it available and, based on the feedback she received at the ADAA conference, she is looking to push up that timetable.
“I think it will take some funding, either from a national grant or maybe a private foundation who is interested, or partnering with a digital health company that might have funding in-house just so that we can make it the best version it can be if we’re going to widely disseminate it,” she said. “So that’s what I need to figure out: The best route and who to partner with to get that.”
But most importantly, she knows she came up with a tool that has proven to work and can benefit youth and their families in the near future.
“I think it’s really important,” Hilt said. “I mean, I think even in the Fox Valley, where we have a lot of mental health resources and schools in the community, there are still a lot of barriers to accessing them.”
“There’s stigma, there’s cost, there’s availability and there are long waitlists. So, I think, having something that’s at your fingertips that can help you give you some skills to get through difficult times, or build up some skills to help you in the future when you might have some stressors, I think is really great to have,” she said. “And I think kids, because they’re so comfortable with the smartphone platform, this is going to be great for them and their mental health.”
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