Managing teen stress one app at a time

Julianne Calapa

Researchers and developers from Kent State created an app to assist teenagers with handling stress and anxiety.

The app, called Build Your Own Theme Song, allows teens to record their own theme song using popular music and words associated with being stress-free.

The app’s goal focuses on replacing teens’ negative thoughts with positive thoughts in order to change behaviors stemming from stress, said Angela Neal-Barnett, a professor in the psychology department and the leader of the project.

Build Your Own Theme Song combines technology and music, which appeals to the app’s teen demographic.

“This is a project that was specifically designed for black girls,” Neal-Barnett said. “…So if we can use something that is already important to them to teach a skill that we know helps them deal with anxiety and stress, it’s an incredibly wonderful thing. This app gives them a tool for going forward in their lives.”

Researchers tested the app with eighth-grade girls at the Buchtel Community Learning Center in Akron in June 2014.

The app asks questions relating to the stress level of the teens and determines if the theme song should play.

The success of the app quickly became evident to researchers. The girls used the app to listen to their theme songs at all different times of day, and people also began to comment about the girls’ behaviors changing after using the app, Neal-Barnett said.

“It really did what they had learned it would do,” Neal-Barnett said. “It pushed out those negative thoughts and replaced them with positives thoughts, which allowed them to make better decisions about how to handle the anxiety and stress.”

The original idea for the app stemmed from Neal-Barnett’s own research and interests.

“I had already done work with adults about musical cognitive restructuring,” Neal-Barnett said. “Once the adult groups finished, they told us we should do this with teens and adolescents because if they had this information about pushing away negative thoughts with music when they were younger, they said it would have made a big difference in their lives.”

Neal-Barnett said she knew she wanted to create an app but lacked the knowledge of how to code and design the app itself. With the help of Arden Ruttan, a professor in the computer science department, and his computer science capstone class, the app became a reality.

“We had a discussion where Angela would lay out her needs and then I would suggest ways to translate those needs into the development of the app,” Ruttan said. “It was a very back and forth collaboration.”

Ruttan’s capstone class produced the majority of the app’s content.

“I knew this was a good project to give my capstone students because it is the kind of thing they would be doing in the field after they graduate,” Ruttan said. “We laid out the parameters of the project and I talked to them about what needs to be done and they do all of the work.”

The app developers also worked hand-in-hand with the researchers by traveling to the Buchtel Community Learning Center to fix any problems the teens experienced, said Kallie Petitti, the project coordinator and a Kent graduate student in the school psychology program.

The app collected data in real time and allowed the researchers to monitor when and how many times the girls used to app.

“It was exciting to be able to see all the data coming in because then we knew they were actually using the app,” Petitti said. “Even after the program was done, it was awesome to see that some of the girls were still using it.”

The app’s second phase of testing will begin this summer.

“Teens get afraid and often don’t know what to do,” Neal-Barnett said. “This app gives them a tool that can change their thinking. If you can change your thinking, you can do great things.”

Contact Julianne Calapa at [email protected].