Can We Foster a Culture of Peer Support and Promote Mental Health in Adolescence Using a Web-Based Application? A Control Group Study
Date Submitted: Feb 3, 2016
Open Peer Review Period: Feb 6, 2016 - Apr 2, 2016
Background: Adolescence with its many transitions is a vulnerable period for the development of mental illnesses. Establishing effective mental health promotion programs for this age group is a challenge but crucial to societal health. Programs need to take into account the specific developmental tasks that adolescents face. Considering peer influence and fostering adolescent autonomy strivings is essential. Moreover, program participation needs to be compelling to young people. Their affinity to new technologies offers unprecedented opportunities in this respect. Objective: This companion project built on these premises and developed an application (the companion app) to foster a positive peer culture among adolescents and thereby strengthen social support and reduce stress. Methods: In a control group study design, a group of employed (n = 546) and unemployed (n = 76) adolescents had access to the companion app during 10 months. The companion app was developed as a web-based app giving adolescents access to a peer mentoring system and interactive, health-relevant content. The intervention was evaluated using a combined quantitative and qualitative approach. Linear mixed effect models were used to analyze changes in chronic stress levels and users’ perception of social support. Monthly feedback on the app and qualitative interviews at the end of the study allowed for an in-depth exploration of the adolescents’ perception of the intervention. Results: Adolescents in the intervention group did not use the companion app consistently. The intervention had no effects on chronic stress levels and perception of social support. Adolescents reported endorsing the concept of the app and in particular the implementation of a mentoring system. However, the immediate benefit of using the app did not seem obvious to the majority of them. Also, some participants reported that there had not been enough activity by other users on the app and that this had made the app less attractive to them. Conclusions: The companion project implemented a theory-driven and innovative approach to mental health promotion in adolescence, taking into account the specificities of this developmental phase. Among other things, insufficient external encouragement and the short duration of the study may have contributed to the lacking commitment of the adolescents to this intervention. Further research is needed on how to best take advantage of new technologies to promote mental health in adolescence.