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Can Technology Improve Understanding of Youth Mental Health?

May 22, 2024

Watch the Recording

On Friday May 10th, the Child Mind Institute convened Setting the Stage: The Next Frontier of Mental Health Research Depends on Ecological Data, the first panel in our webinar series on Technology and Youth Mental Health. The initiative aims to build consensus among researchers, policymakers, and industry leaders on how to use tech to improve mental health outcomes for children and adolescents — and how to prevent negative effects.

This first webinar tackled a fundamental building block of this effort: research. Do we have the data we need to measure technology’s effect on mental health? Do we know what questions we want to answer? What issues — privacy, infrastructure, access — stand in the way of success?

The panel was moderated by Michelle Freund, PhD, Director of Strategic Data Initiatives at the Child Mind Institute. Panelists included Michael P. Milham, MD, PhD, Chief Science Officer at the Child Mind Institute; Kathleen Merikangas, PhD, Chief of the Genetic Epidemiology Research Branch at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and Co-Chair of the Child Mind Institute Scientific Research Council; Satra Ghosh, PhD, Director of the Open Data in Neuroscience Initiative at MIT; Gaya Dowling, PhD, Director of the Adolescent Brain and Cognitive Development (ABCD) Project at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA); and Linda Charmaraman, PhD, Director of the Youth, Media, & Wellbeing Lab at Wellesley College.

The panelists dug into the promise of new methods for the collection of real-world or “ecological data.” These technologies include wearable sensors to measure environmental conditions, passive collection of smartphone activity, and voice recording for analysis. Unlike traditional (and subjective) questionnaires, Dr. Milham said, “sensor-based data collection provides objective, precise and less intrusive insights” into how young people’s interactions with technology, their peers, and the environment affect mental health.

The group also spoke about the promises (and hurdles) of utilizing existing large datasets, like electronic medical records (EMRs). EMRs are “not only helping to standardize the data being collected,” Dr. Milham said, “but also making it possible to carry out large scale studies…following youth over time and seeing the impact” of exposures and interventions. Dr. Ghosh agreed, with a caveat: “Many of these systems were designed for billing purposes to start with and later adapted and adopted for collecting different kinds of data that serves that individual.” That means that they can be difficult to work with and lack standard data.

Dr. Merikangas cautioned that the sheer wealth of data available is not only unwieldy, it can distort scientific inquiry. When so much data is available, it tempts researchers to simply ask questions that can be answered by the existing data—rather than asking important questions and then gathering data to answer them. “Right now, we have this huge environment of data where people are trying to nest hypotheses onto it,” she said.

Dr. Dowling raised a complementary issue: who isn’t included in these large datasets? “There is a health equity portion of all of this,” she said. “When we’re looking at ways to collect this type of data, we need to make sure that we’re collecting data from everyone. Often, data collection can be biased, based on what kind of information we have access to. Electronic health records are a good example. Not everybody has a primary care physician that they see every year.” And therefore, not everyone is equally represented in EMRs. The ethics of large-scale digital mental health research will be addressed in a future webinar.

The panelists touched the surface of another critical question that will be addressed in future webinars: privacy. Dr. Charmaraman is excited about the possibility of a great expansion in research methods. “There’s more bandwidth and feasibility to collect and share qualitative and mixed methods data,” she said, “and really get to the content and context” of youth experience. However “there’s all these issues of data — privacy and data scrubbing and how to protect people’s confidentiality.”  This could be a great rallying point for collaboration in the field. “I’d love to see more infrastructure being built on this issue,” she said.

If we can build consensus and action around these challenges, then the rewards could be great. Dr. Milham summarized the outlook: “Real world data collection promises to refine our strategies for intervention, enhance the accuracy of our assessments and ultimately improve the outcomes for young people navigating the complexity of today’s digital world.”

Questions from the audience touched on the wide range of topics at the intersection of public health, technology, and mental health research, and highlighted the need for conversations like this. They included queries about bridging the gap between biochemical and brain-imaging-based understanding of youth mental health and the behavioral data that can be captured via sensors and digital data. You can read a list of audience questions and answers compiled from panelists that didn’t make it into the webinar.

Want to learn more about the Child Mind Institute’s work at the intersection of technology and mental health?

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