Addressing Teen Stress, Part 2

Elin Björling

Elin Björling, PhD
University of Washington

Last week, in recognition of National Stress Awareness Month, we began examination of stress and teens, particularly teenage girls. Read that, then read this week’s part 2. – Ed.

Designing technology-based stress reduction tools has promise for teens’ stress now and their future health.

School is the number one stressor for teens, and teenage girls report higher stress levels than boys. There are several measures that schools, communities, families, and individuals can take to reduce stress and its impact on health and wellbeing. My research points toward one promising approach.

What constitutes success
There are several components to what I would consider a successful outcome.

Successful resolution is building awareness about teens’ stress, such that talking about and addressing stress becomes a community endeavor and is not handed back to individual teens to solve. Success is also recognizing that teen stress is a moving target; continued research and understanding is needed as the lives of teens continue to change and be affected by our larger culture. A solution designed for teens today may not work in ten years.

Success is communities’ understanding that ALL teens experience stress and, therefore, stress-reducing tools need to be accessible and available to ALL teens. Stress tools also need to allow some customization by teens or schools to make them more effective, as teens are a diverse population.

In addition, success is engaging teens in the conversation about how to solve this problem. Teens may be vulnerable to stress, but they are also highly creative thinkers, making them great partners in research, design, and problem solving. We’ve seen amazing research in areas like Restorative Justice in schools that truly engages teen in problem-solving. We need to think applying this type of method to address teen stress.

Success in stress research is exploration of the interactional aspects of stress between the teen and her or his environment and more in-depth work to explore what teen stress really is, how it is perceived, and by whom. Future research will ideally provide insights to these questions:

  • How are we unconsciously promoting stress or stress behaviors in stressful environments?
  • How is stress contagious among teens?
  • Can stress-reducing behaviors be contagious as well?
  • How can we design and develop environments that break the stress patterns commonly seen in U.S. schools today?

Writing as a participatory researcher, ideally all of these research questions would be explored by researchers AND teens and their communities. Great research can be accomplished when we collaborate to try to solve a problem together.

Researching a strategy to reduce teen stress
So what works? To date, there is no one-size-fits-all remedy for stress, but we do know some tools that work. Sleep and exercise have been shown to be hugely important in reducing the negative impacts of stress in adults and in teens (ref). In addition, talking to others and feeling connected can be helpful to reduce stress School-based interventions such as mindfulness  programs to reduce teens’ stress have also been shown helpful. Sadly, school-based programs often take a lot of staff training, student time, and effort, and many schools, especially those that are under-resourced, are not equipped to implement such programs.

For this reason, my research aims to utilize easily accessible and cost-effective technologies to reduce teen stress. We are developing self-administered, scalable technologies that are easily accessible by all teens in any school setting. Today’s teens are immersed in technology from birth. Too often this technology can exacerbate stress or be isolating. For this reason, my team is using technologies to reduce stress and create social connections. We are in the process of designing stress-reducing tools using existing technologies – such as a virtual reality relaxation room and a social robot – to reduce stress. We design technologies with teens, and for teens, using human-centered design. This is just a fancy way of saying, we are out to solve real-world problems and keep humans (in our case teens) at the center of our focus. Each of our projects is a response to a current societal problem, in this case, teen stress.

By addressing stress at school, where many teen stressors originate, we can ideally target stress as it happens, thereby reducing its negative impact. And by designing technologies in collaboration WITH teens, we can ensure that we develop tools that are feasible and desirable for teens to use.

Elin Björling, Ph.D., is a research scientist and lecturer in the department of Human Centered Design and Engineering. She is the co-founder of the Momentary Experience Lab, conducting design and development projects that capture data and intervene to improve health in the real world. Elin is the Project lead for Project EMAR, an interdisciplinary project exploring the design and development of a social robot to measure and reduce stress in teens. Using human-centered design, Elin engages in outreach education and research working directly with teens in the local community, including co-creating the high school Design Challenge. Over the past two decades Elin has been an integral part of numerous research projects in health sciences and education with a focus on teen stress and she continues to advocate for improvements in teen mental health.

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