Just under two-thirds of U.S. teens and young adults have used a health-related mobile health app, according to a new survey of more than 1,300 US teens and young adults aged 14 to 22 years.
The survey, sponsored by Hope Lab and Well Being Trust, was designed and analyzed in part by Susannah Fox, a former HHS chief technology officer who also conducted similar surveys in the past as a part of the Pew Research Center. Fox was joined by former director of the Kaiser Family Foundation’s Program for the Study of Media and Health Victoria Rideout. The research was conducted earlier this year by NORC at the University of Chicago (formerly the National Opinion Research Center).
A major focus of the report was to get a grounding of understanding on the relationship between depression and social media use in teens and young adults. It found that the relationship there is complicated: teens and young people who use social media extensively aren’t significantly more likely to have symptoms of depression, but those with depressive symptoms are more likely to report both negative and positive social media experiences.
But survey results also include some insights into how young people are using digital health tools in 2018.
“A total of 64 percent of teens and young adults say they have used a health-related mobile app, with fitness apps being the most commonly reported (45 percent),” the report's authors wrote. “One in four (26 percent) young people say they have used nutrition-related apps, while one in five report using apps related to sleep (20 percent) or menstrual cycles (20 percent). About one in 10 say they have used apps related to meditation or mindfulness (11 percent) and stress reduction (9 percent). Only 4 percent say they have used apps related to quitting smoking.”
Not all demographics used health apps at the same rate. Seventy-one percent of young women had tried a health app, compared to 57 percent of men. Thirty percent said they currently used a health app, compared to 20 percent of men.
Teens with moderate to mild depressive symptoms were also more likely to use a health app — 76 percent had done so, compared with 38 percent of those with no symptoms.
“There is not yet a strong evidence base for the effectiveness of health apps,” survey authors noted. “While this survey is not able to assess effectiveness, it did ask respondents how helpful they perceived health-related apps they’ve tried. We find that, of those who have tried health-related apps, a total of 76 percent find them at least ‘somewhat’ helpful: 27 percent say they were ‘very’ helpful and 49 percent say ‘somewhat.’ While 64 percent of young people say they have ‘ever’ used health apps, 25 percent say they ‘currently’ do. It appears that many young people are using health-related apps for just a short time — to reach a goal, for example.”
Just shy of 40 percent of respondents had gone online to look for people with a health condition similar to their own. But when it came to going online to look for information about depression, that number was much higher for those with depression symptoms (53 percent).
Women and LGBTQ youth were also much more likely to search for information about depression or anxiety online (49 percent of women and 76 percent of LGBTQ respondents had looked for information about depression, 55 percent and 76 percent respectively for anxiety).
One thing teens and young adults still aren’t doing at a high rate is using online or mobile tools to communicate with their healthcare providers. Just one in five young people in the full sample had done so. That number went up to nearly one in three (32 percent) for those with depressive symptoms.
Those interested in learning more, especially about social media use and depression, can check out the full survey here.