What is the Grow It! app?

Legerstee: “The app was originally invented by two professors, Manon Hillegers and Loes Keijsers, and serves to give us a better understanding of young people’s emotions and behaviour in daily life. It will allow us to more quickly identify those young people who are having a difficult time of it emotionally, contact them and offer them treatment if necessary. The app is also designed to give young people some support, particularly now, during the coronavirus crisis.”

Why does this study specifically focus on young people?

Dietvorst: “The restrictions that are vital to curb the spread of the coronavirus are antithetical to what young people need in order to be able to develop in a healthy manner. To young people, the opinions held by their peers always matter more than, say, their parents’ opinions. Young people fall in love for the first time, build lifelong friendships, learn how to deal with stressful situations and become increasingly autonomous, which will prepare them for adult life. And now we’re robbing them of many of these learning experiences by imposing restrictions, which may have a rather harmful effect.”

Legerstee: “And we have found that the coronavirus crisis is causing young people to be less happy and satisfied, particularly during the current lockdown. They feel lonelier and are more worried. They are being taught online and hardly ever get to see their lecturers and fellow students in person.”

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How does the Grow It! App work?

Legerstee: “Five times a day, participants receive a notification on their phones. This will allow them to take a quick survey about what they are doing, how they are feeling, how well they slept. It takes them one or two minutes to answer the questions. So we have five moments a day where we get a nice insight into how young people are feeling in various situations. This may be just after they have got up, or at school, or while they are studying, or while they are working in their side jobs. The app also invites users to improve their reactions to their problems in various ways. For instance, we encourage young people to seek more social support, find better ways to distract themselves, do a better job of accepting their situation or learn how to solve problems. The app comes with a special contact button which young people can use if they are really worried about something and want to talk about it.”

So basically, you’re collecting data because they take your surveys five times a day, and in exchange, you give them help addressing their own issues?

Legerstee: “We collect their data, but we also provide them with an insight into these data. During the first wave of the pandemic, we were able to demonstrate that this allows people to get a better understanding of themselves and motivates them to spring into action. It allows them to realise, ‘oh, actually I am spending quite a bit of time in my room’, and then to do something about that.”

Dietvorst: “That’s the great thing about this study. The young people have told us that this really helps them, that it is helping them get a better understanding of their own emotions, and that it is motivating them to be more proactive. That’s a very good thing, because sometimes, your study will be based on people who are only participating because they find research very important, whereas here we have some young people who want to learn about themselves. In the long run, the data in this app may allow us to create an algorithm that can identify those types of young people who are at increased risk of mental health issues. If parents or school-affiliated psychologists are concerned, we may, say, propose that a young person use this app for two weeks, and then decide what we’re going to do.”

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In your capacity as researchers, what is motivating you to conduct this study?

Dietvorst: “I used to be a nurse, so I worked at a psych ward, as well. Then I did a Bachelor’s in psychology, which is where I discovered statistics. I then did a research-based Master’s degree, and afterwards, two years ago, I was hired as a PhD student by the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry unit, and to me, that feels like the most obvious combination ever. This study combines the pragmatic side of providing direct help, so as to improve young people’s lives, with questions raised by scientists. All these data will really help us take some big steps forward.”

Legerstee: “I combine science with clinical care provided to psychiatric patients. Healthcare providers are seeing that young people are now having a harder time of it. Waiting lists are enormous, and as a healthcare worker, I’ve found that much of the progress we made before has been undone by the coronavirus crisis. I mainly wish to help children. Childhood, puberty and adolescence are periods during which many children experience emotional hardship. I’ve always felt that if you can work out the kinks at that time and offer them some helpful tools, children will benefit from that a great deal, even later in life.”