Social

Mental Health and Social Good: A Partnership?

This week, we would like to continue our focus on discussing ways to actively improve our mindsets and mental health overall. A recent post in NPR discusses a new psychology study that suggests that teenagers benefit from a confidence boost if they help strangers or volunteer. While helping a friend or family member is obviously a positive experience, it is more difficult challenging, and maybe even intimidating, to help someone you do not know - and this is why teens can derive confidence boosts from helping others. Given the diversity of teens’ interests, it’s a wonderful thing that spending time helping strangers - even people one doesn’t meet - can happen in all facets of society.

 

Confidence boosts are always good, but teenagers today may benefit from them the most. Current research tells us that today’s teenagers live in challenging times — both socially and economically — and the numbers show it. The NPR article cites that “by the age of fourteen, 25% of teenage girls and 10% of boys struggle with depression.” Students of all ages seek out help for depression, anxiety, and other difficulties. The idea that they might help themselves and others at the same time by devoting time or energy to social good is wonderful.

 

Altruism has always had a somewhat broad definition, and the way today’s teenagers help others might look differently than the way their parents might envision it from their own experience. For example, teenagers can harness social media to spread awareness and raise funds for campaigns or causes they care about. Parents and teachers can introduce opportunities to get involved or answer questions about navigating ways students can positively contribute to society.

 

At CHIL, we are always trying to link health to many actors: children, parents, teachers, doctors, and officials all play a part in physical, mental, and social health. Linking children’s and teens’ mental well-being to social initiatives, and vice versa, could be very promising!

A Home Away from Home: Schools and Students after Trauma

NPR recently discussed some of the challenges and opportunities facing teachers of students who may have been exposed to trauma. In New Orleans, where public schools have largely been replaced by charter schools after Hurricane Katrina, schoolteachers have become accustomed to having students who may have experienced abuse or neglect, have absent or jailed parents, or have witnessed crimes. School discipline policies that previously only focused on a child’s errant behavior are now undergoing an update that takes these environmental factors into account.

 

There are currently five charter schools in New Orleans that are seeking to become “more trauma-informed.” In other words, these schools are starting to incorporate knowledge about their students’ lives outside of school in order to address their social, emotional, behavioral, and development needs. These changes are bound to have an impact, considering the fact that children in New Orleans screen for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at three times the national rate. Mental health experts and workers have only recently begun to understand that trauma dramatically changes the brain and intensifies the fight-or-flight response in young children.

 

Children with exposure to trauma might be disruptive in school, or they may be withdrawn and inattentive. Teachers are learning to look for signs of both ends of the spectrum and everything in between. They are also engineering new ways to resolve conflict instead of resorting to detention or suspension since sending a child back to a damaging home environment is not the best way to solve problems in the long run.

 

For example, some teachers begin classes with social-emotional learning, and students in disagreement are invited to use group discussion to resolve their problems. Another way teachers are approaching disruptive students is by renaming “time out” as “wellness centers”, and multiple teachers collaborate with each other to work the same students over the course of a day. The article also details the moving stories of students who have seen real change with this type of support that they cannot find at home.

 

Certain statistics aside, this story is not unique to New Orleans. In many urban areas, when children experience poverty and hardship, and there are desperate consequences at home and in their daily lives, teachers everywhere can be heroes that foster a “home away from home” in their classroom. However, these New Orleans teachers and schools have ventured into an unknown space in their mission to understand each of their students, and to address a holistic approach to health. By addressing issues, and not punishing students, a very challenging method, teachers play a vital role in the health and well-being of their students.

 

Healthcare Costs and Exercising Children

An article in the New York Times describes a new study that used complex models to imagine what the health landscape of American children would look like if children exercised every day. The study found that the United States could save more than $120 billion a year in healthcare costs alone if all children exercised every day.

Researchers at the Global Obesity Prevention Center at Johns Hopkins University used computerized models that created avatars for each of the 31.7 million children in the United States currently between eight to 11-years-old. In keeping with real-life statistics, they programmed two thirds of these children to rarely exercise. The researchers then modeled each child’s calorie intake and “virtual body change” day by day, year by year, and tracked these simulated childhoods into adulthood. After these avatars reached adulthood, their health was modeled based on the predictive risk for heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, etc.

The results were sobering. The models predicted that if eight to 11-year-olds were as inactive as predicted almost $3 trillion in medical expenses would be spent on this population. Furthermore, they would have lost productivity each year once they reach adulthood.

Even if this estimate is not perfectly precise, it is undeniable that the social price tag of physical inactivity is significant - inactive kids will grow to be sedentary adults whose health problems are not only expensive to treat but also cost the economy in lost wages and productivity. Childhood obesity and Type 2 diabetes are only some of the many risks associated with a lack of exercise.

The same researchers also looked at the counterfactual and model of  how society would benefit if these children did exercise regularly. If half of the children in the U.S. were able to receive at least half an hour of exercise three times a week (the recommendation by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), childhood obesity would fall and the societal costs of obesity-related disease would drop by $32 billion. 

The numbers are undeniably compelling. The societal burden of disease stemming from lack of exercise would impact us all, regardless of how healthy we imagine ourselves to be. Today’s adolescents live with an unprecedented amount of distractions that might make physical activity seem less appealing, but getting proper exercise is not only a short-term benefit but also a long-term investment.

The Social Element to Running

A recent study done by researchers at the MIT Sloane School of Management has found that runners do influence each other in their training and workout routines, according to the New York Times. Researchers collected data on 1.1 million runners around the world who had collectively run almost 225 million miles over five years. Intuitively, we predicted that friends tend to have similar running routines day to day, over time, even in different geographic locations. But we have to consider correlation versus causation: do friends influence each other's’ running habits or do people choose running friends with similar habits?

 

The study found that runners do influence each other by pushing each other to run more. For instance, if a person ran 10 more minutes than usual on a given day, his or her friends would also increase the amount of time they ran by several minutes, even in the case of inclement weather (the MIT researchers also collected weather data for the five years that the runners were monitored.) In a running network, male runners seemed to be influenced by both their male and female friends, but female runners seemed to be almost exclusively influenced by their female friends. These trends could point to habits that form during young adulthood or even sooner when we respond to social cues within our friend groups, especially with respect to athleticism or body image.

 

Running is an ideal activity to collect data on because of its integration with devices that track activity and distance. Running can also easily be a social activity: we often run with buddies or engage in friendly competition with friends to increase stamina. More importantly, running is a sport that is often more accessible than other sports. As we continue to examine the influence friends play in forming healthy habits, we should also ask ourselves how we can use studies like this to help build healthy habits for our students.

Smartphones: A True Addiction?

A recent blog post talked about the need for mobile app designers to consider the active role that teens can and should play in staying safe online. It’s not just the responsibility of parents to restrict a teenager’s online presence. Instead, it’s much more productive for parents to team up with their children in order to start a conversation about Internet safety.

 

This week’s post involves one of the risks that parents are undoubtedly concerned about - the risk that teenagers are addicted to their smartphones. Anecdotally, we all can think of a parent disapproving of their children’s inability to look away from their phones for an extended period of time. This problem certainly is not unique to teenagers. Researchers are only beginning to find out what impact smartphones have on our health and our social networks.

 

An article in the NYTimes poses a compelling question: are teenagers replacing other addictive substances with their smartphones? There is good news and bad news that might suggest this is the case. The good news is that teen drug use (trying or regularly using drugs, including alcohol) has gone down in the past decade. This trend is true for all students overall regardless of their demographics. The bad or neutral news, depending on how you look at it, is that this is the same time period that smartphones have exploded onto the scene.

 

There is no way to prove that this coincidence is definitely a causal effect. There are far too many factors at play, including, but not limited to the financial crisis in the past decade, and the extensive anti-drug educational campaigns that might have started to pay off. Also, drug use among college students has not fallen in the same time period.

 

But it’s important to think about the implications of what some experts call a “portable dopamine pump” in a teenager’s everyday life. In the article, the writer explained that smartphones and their various apps provide feedback loops for users and the members of their social networks. Teens have said that they feel “really good” when using their phones for social media.  


Researchers are looking into this trend with a lot of interest, and so should we. The new “high” formed by excessive phone usage could shape teenagers’ social priorities and experiences for years to come.

Staying Safe Online Together

A new article in NPR suggests that there aren’t enough apps out there to protect teens online and  also actively engages them to develop their own decisionmaking. Parents are understandably worried their children will be exposed to explicit contents or bullying that have often resulted in tragic stories in the news. However, researchers in computer science have pointed out that app developers assume that parents are the main users of mobile online safety without considering the possibility (and necessity) of teens being proactive about the websites they visit and the messages they send. Teenagers who are aware of this necessity have even designed their own apps to address the need for parents and teens to work together to stay safe.

 

The article reports that the “Holy Grail” of parenting teens, according to developmental psychology, is “striking a balance between parental supervision and teen autonomy.” The American Academy of Pediatrics also supports this view, and released an online tool to help family members create a game plan together for mobile and media usage. The idea behind this plan is not to necessarily limit the activity of teens online since the internet is also a good place to find supportive communities with people who share similar interests. Instead, the goal is to encourage parents and teens to be proactive instead of being caught off guard by a problem in the future.

 

According to a statistic cited in this NPR article, currently, “only 16 percent of parents use monitoring software on their teens' mobile phones,” Parents still usually use other methods of checking up on their kids, like “friending” them on social media or directly logging into their accounts. Apps that are being developed focus mostly on restriction, with relatively little emphasis on education like teaching teens about self-monitoring or impulse control.

 

This problem presents a big opportunity for parents and app developers alike. There are more constructive ways to keep track of a teen’s online activity than snooping or restricting their usage altogether. When parents work with their students instead of restraining them, parents are showing their children that they are proactive partners who are helping them stay safer online. Apps that also focuses on developing interfaces that reflect the parent-child partnership can have potential to bridge the gap parents often feel when it comes to their teens and technology. Through a renewed outlook on teens and technology, parents can also encourage their children to keep track of their own decision-making as well.

Social Incentives for a Healthy Lifestyle

 

A recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine argues that the infrastructure to harness healthy habits already exists within our social interactions. The support from friends and families can help us make healthy decisions on a daily basis. The article outlines five rungs of social incentives used to improve patients’ health and to test their effectiveness. Here is a short description of each of the rungs illustrated in the article:

 

Rung One: “Patients have no explicit social engagement.”

Since health is at once a public and a private matter, some of our most important daily health maintenance routines are invisible to the world. The authors point out that our health can be invisible even to us - without a pedometer, we don’t have a grasp of our daily activity. Realizing the correlation between self-awareness and developing healthy habits, CHIL has partnered with New York City schools to bring pedometers to students. Read more about our pedometer program.

 

Rung Two: Patients’ activities, outcomes, or goals are visible to others.”

In order to encourage healthy behavior, you and your family can physically partake in habits, such as taking daily medications and vitamins, in a visible place. Restaurants have started to use this model to promote handwashing by moving the sink out of the bathroom and into a more public space.

 

Rung Three: External support is explicitly established.”

Signing up for external support, such as text alerts, to remind you and your kids to exercise can increase healthy outcomes. For everyday challenges, such as lowering blood sugar levels, simple interventions like weekly phone calls with a mentor can be more effective than expensive drugs.

 

Rung Four: “Interventions leverage reciprocity.”

It’s all about being committed to a friend’s goals as well as your own regardless of your age. Even physicians are known to work in teams to competitively improve outcomes. This element of competition can certainly energize patients combatting chronic diseases such as diabetes.

 

Rung Five:Reputational or economic incentives are layered on top of social commitments.”

This is the ultimate goal in the five-rung model. Individuals and teams can work together to create leaderboards and competitions. By doing so, there can be an increased sense of accountability as people work together toward a reward. Patients have greater potential to succeed if teammates know each other beforehand and are introduced to incentives together.