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MIT Study: Practicing Mindfulness with an App Could Boost Children’s Mental Health

From twitter.com

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have found that mindfulness apps might be well-positioned to help today’s children to improve their attention, behavior, and overall mental health.

Mindfulness is generally defined as “cultivating an open-minded attention to the present moment” (MIT News). One of the most famous names in the mindfulness discipline and industry, MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn, defines mindfulness as “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally, in the service of self-understanding and wisdom” (mindful). Mindfulness is not a temporary escape from the chaos of life, but perhaps its opposite: facing a world of chaos sustainably “with an anchor of calmness and clarity.” (earth.com)

The study, conducted by researchers at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, takes into context the changed landscape of learning, with millions of students studying at home and apps like Zoom becoming a part of daily life and school. According to MIT News, “a group of MIT researchers “wondered if remote, app-based mindfulness practices could offer similar benefits. In a study conducted during 2020 and 2021, they 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.” (MIT News)

“At-Home use of App-Based Mindfulness for Children: A Randomized Active-Controlled Trial” is an open access paper that was published on 9 October in the journal Mindfulness. The team of researchers conducted a randomized controlled trial (RCT) with three control groups, looking at an 8-week mindfulness intervention in 279 American children from the ages of 8–10. The objective was to examine the pre-post effects between these three control groups: one group where children used the Inner Explorer app (the mindfulness intervention), a second group where children listened to an audiobook app (unrelated to mindfulness), and a third group where participants had weekly one-on-one virtual meetings with a facilitator.

The children were then “instructed to engage in mindfulness training five days a week, including relaxation exercises, breathing exercises, and other forms of meditation” (MIT). They were “assessed on self-report measures of anxiety and depression symptoms, perceived stress and trait mindfulness and we also collected parental reports.” (Springer)

According to MIT News, “At the beginning and end of the study, the researchers evaluated each participant’s levels of mindfulness, along with measures of mental health such as anxiety, stress, and depression” (MIT News) In all three groups, children’s mental health improved over the course of the study, with each group showing increased pro-social behavior and mindfulness. However, children in the mindfulness group displayed some additional benefits, including a more significant decrease in stress. Furthermore, parents in the mindfulness group reported that their children enjoyed a more significant decrease in negative emotions, such as sadness or anger. Students enjoyed the most benefits when practicing the Inner Explorer app’s exercises on most days.

“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. So, in terms of pure scalability and cost-effectiveness, apps are useful,” said MIT graduate student Isaac N. Treves, the author of the study.  “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.”

The researchers conclude that there would seem to be value in remote, app-based mindfulness training, as long as children “engage with the exercises consistently and receive encouragement from parents.” Apps are also less resource-intensive, as they can reach a larger number of children with less training and staff required than school-based programs. (MIT News)

Consistency is important. Reaping the benefits of mindfulness, requires patience and practice, with practitioners “returning to the present, again and again, building a mental resilience and openness to the ebb and flow of life.” (earth.com)

The study could also have greater implications: as all trends point to the increasing digitization and atomization of the human individual (which is not only due to the pandemic but is fuelled by the dominance of mobile technology, social media, and new models of schooling and work), mindfulness could take on a renewed role of importance and even urgency in boosting mental health.

This study was funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative as part of the Reach Every Reader Project, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Science Foundation.

See more

At-Home use of App-Based Mindfulness for Children: A Randomized Active-Controlled Trial (Mindfulness)
Practicing mindfulness with an app may improve children’s mental health (MIT)
Jon Kabat-Zinn: Defining Mindfulness (mindful)
Using apps to practice mindfulness improves mental health of children (earth.com)

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