Can safe space apps support users’ mental health?

06 : 11 : 2017 Wellness : Digital : Social Media
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The darker side of anonymous apps has been widely reported, but through careful application, they can have a positive impact on users’ mental health.

Kathryn Bishop, senior writer, The Future Laboratory

Apps and virtual networks have become the normalised medium through which we live our lives. Through these platforms, which we have voluntarily signed up to, we scroll, watch, like, desire, assume, compare, mock and shame. The result? Our behaviour is having a negative impact on our mental health and that of our online friends.

A 2016 study, published in the medical journal Depression and Anxiety, identified a link between social media use and increased depression among young adults in the US. Another study by the Royal Society for Public Health and Young Health Movement ranked Instagram as the worst social media platform in terms of its impact on the mental health of young people.

And yet the time spent in social and messaging apps skyrocketed by 394% between 2015 and 2016, according to mobile analytics company Flurry. Anonymous comment platforms such as ASKfm and Sarahah have become a hit among teenagers globally. ‘The drama created by anonymity helps to make the apps appealing,’ explains cyber-psychologist Dr Dawn Branley. ‘But does this short-term entertainment come at the price of potential long-term distress?’

The darker side of anonymous apps has been widely reported. Digital obscurity can embolden people to behave negatively and help to facilitate cyberbullying. But through careful application, they can have a positive impact on users’ mental health.

In the case of tbh (to be honest), an anonymous compliment app that was recently acquired by Facebook for around £76.3m ($100m, €86.3m), users can post kind words about their peers anonymously and receive points from other users for their efforts. Demonstrating a Consumer 2020 mindset, tbh co-founder Nikita Bier says that tbh is designed to inspire feeling of happiness among Generation I and Z consumers. ‘If we’re improving the mental health of millions of teenagers, that’s a success to us,’ he explained to TechCrunch. ‘The goal is – can we make this generation happier?’

When remodelled, anonymous apps can positively enhance lives and provide an antidote to the mental health malaise of other apps.

Anxiety intervention app MeeTwo focuses on safeguarding the mental health of Generation I and Z consumers. The school-age users of MeeTwo can share their worries anonymously, offer solutions and access expert advice from doctors and specialists in mental and sexual health, nutrition and family life.

MeeTwo’s familiar, highly visual platform and promise of anonymity offers teenagers a digital safe space in which they can openly discuss their worries and seek help. ‘Adolescent mental health is a problem that is desperately in need of innovative solutions,’ says Dr Kerstyn Comley, managing director of MeeTwo, who says that first-time users are ‘discussing issues as varied as step-parenting, asexuality and exam stress’.

There is also a need for mental health platforms aimed at adults. A 2016 survey by NHS Digital shows that one in six adults in England has a common mental disorder such as anxiety, a phobia/phobias, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. In response, apps such as Huddle offer digital safe spaces in which adults can anonymously share their stories, concerns and advice through video-based group therapy sessions. Users can pixelate their faces for added anonymity.

When remodelled, anonymous apps can – and should – positively enhance lives and provide an antidote to the mental health malaise of other apps. ‘Social media has as many benefits as it does negatives,’ explains Simon Wessely, former president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists. ‘We need to teach children about how to cope with all aspects of social media – good and bad – to prepare them for an increasingly digitised world.’

Young consumers are creating real-world communities to give a voice to marginalised groups. Read our Safe Spaces microtrend to find out more.