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The Benefits of Using Mindfulness Apps for Children's Mental Health

[Oct. 12, 2023: Staff Writer, The Brighter Side of News]

New research suggests daily mindfulness training at home helped reduce kids’ stress levels and negative emotions. (CREDIT: Creative Commons)

In a world increasingly preoccupied by devices, screens, and instantaneous notifications, teaching our youth the art of mindfulness may sound paradoxical.

Yet, when faced with a pandemic that shut the physical doors to schools, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) found that the digital realm might hold a key solution to nurturing the mental well-being of children.


What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness, at its core, embodies the practice of directing unwavering attention to the present moment. It cultivates a state of open-mindedness, emphasizing awareness without judgment. Researchers and educators alike have increasingly recognized its potential benefits. Studies have shown that children receiving mindfulness training at school exhibit enhanced attention, improved behavior, and augmented mental health.

But as the COVID-19 pandemic reared its head in 2020, transforming bustling classrooms into virtual settings, an essential question arose: could remote, app-based mindfulness interventions offer a similar mental reprieve to children isolated at home?


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MIT’s Groundbreaking Study on Mindfulness and the Pandemic

John Gabrieli, the Grover Hermann Professor of Health Sciences and Technology and a professor of brain and cognitive sciences at MIT, explained, “There is growing and compelling scientific evidence that mindfulness can support mental well-being and promote mental health in diverse children and adults.” This sentiment served as a cornerstone for Gabrieli's study, which sought to gauge the role of mindfulness in children's resilience to the pandemic's negative emotional toll.


Isaac Treves, an MIT graduate student and the lead author of this pivotal research, emphasized the broader implications of their findings. He said, “To some extent, the impact of Covid is out of your control as an individual, but your ability to respond to it and to interpret it may be something that mindfulness can help with.”

MIT researchers report that children who used a mindfulness app at home for 40 days showed improvements in several aspects of mental health, including reductions in stress and negative emotions such as loneliness and fear. (CREDIT: iStock)

Before delving into the benefits of app-based mindfulness training, Gabrieli's team first set out to understand how mindfulness – or its lack – affected children's emotional response to the pandemic. Surveying students aged 8 to 10, they measured their inherent mindfulness levels, gauging their tendency to self-blame, ruminate on negative thoughts, or suppress emotions. Simultaneously, they assessed the children's emotional responses to the pandemic's disruptions, including feelings of anxiety, depression, stress, and other negative emotions.


One intriguing discovery stood out: children with higher intrinsic mindfulness levels seemed to be less entangled in negative emotions. Even when the pandemic severely impacted their lives, their emotional state remained more stable, suggesting an innate resilience. Contrarily, children with lower mindfulness levels showed a stark correlation between the pandemic's impact and their heightened negative feelings.

Treatment effects for all groups and all scales. Note: Blue is Mindfulness, Green is Audiobook-scaffolded, Red is Audiobook-only. Error bars reflect standard errors. TimePoint 0 is Pre-test, TimePoint 1 is Post-test. Sample size is 279 individuals. (CREDIT: SpringerLink)

Drawing from this foundation, the researchers pondered: could they nurture this mindfulness in children remotely? Previous studies from Gabrieli’s lab have indicated the positive impacts of mindfulness training in schools – from academic enhancements to behavioral improvements. But in a world now driven by remote learning, could an app serve as an effective vehicle for delivering these benefits?


Partnering with Inner Explorer, a nonprofit specializing in meditation programs, the team created a unique mindfulness app. Over 40 days, children engaged with the app, practicing relaxation and meditation exercises. For comparison, two control groups were given audiobook apps, with one group also engaging in weekly virtual sessions with a facilitator.

Change in parent-reported child negative affect with median split by days practiced. *p < 0.05, **p < 0.01. LowPracticeMindful is the group of mindfulness participants at or below the median of days practiced (29). HighPracticeMindful is the group above the median. (CREDIT: SpringerLink)

The findings were striking. All three groups, regardless of the app used, showcased mental health improvements over the eight-week study period. Each group demonstrated spikes in mindfulness levels and increased tendencies towards helpful behavior (prosociality). However, the mindfulness app group exhibited unique benefits, including a more substantial reduction in stress. Furthermore, parents of children in this group reported larger drops in their kids' negative emotions, like anger and sadness. The more frequently students practiced mindfulness exercises, the more significant the benefits they reaped.


Interestingly, measures of anxiety and depression did not vary significantly between the mindfulness group and the audiobook groups. Treves hypothesized that this might stem from the mental health benefits accrued by the human interaction in the facilitated audiobook group.

Relationship between child COVID-Impact and negative affect, median split by mindfulness. Low mindfulness children show positive correlation between COVID Impact and Negative Affect. (CREDIT: PLOS)

The Future of Mindfulness Training: Apps vs. Classrooms?

So, do these results signify a complete shift from classroom-based mindfulness programs to apps? Not necessarily. But they do underscore the potential of app-based interventions, especially in situations where traditional resources are scarce or inaccessible. Apps introduce scalability and cost-effectiveness to the equation, potentially reaching a broader audience.


Treves captured this sentiment perfectly, saying, “There are a lot of great ways to incorporate mindfulness training into schools, but in general, it’s more resource-intensive than having people download an app. Another good thing about apps is that the kids can go at their own pace and repeat practices that they like, so there’s more freedom of choice.”

As the world grapples with challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic, innovations in how we approach mental health, especially for our younger generation, are of paramount importance. While apps cannot replace human interaction or the traditional classroom setting, they offer a powerful supplementary tool, ensuring children have the resilience and mental strength to face a rapidly changing world.

For more science and technology stories check out our New Discoveries section at The Brighter Side of News.


Note: Materials provided above by The Brighter Side of News. Content may be edited for style and length.


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