By Rick Nauert, Ph.D.
Reviewed by John M. Grohol, Psy.D.
June 5, 2014
A new mobile application designed to detect stress and deliver research-based strategies to mitigate tension and anxiety has been shown to be effective for mothers of attention-deficit, hyperactivity disorder children.
The system, called ParentGuardian, combines an app and a sensor, as well as powerful computing, to help people manage stress.
The product, created by computer scientists from Microsoft and the University of California, San Diego, has been tested on a small group of parents of children with ADHD.
Researchers believe the system will help mothers decrease stress during emotionally charged interactions with their children.
How the App Works
The system consists of a sensor worn on the wrist with a smart phone and tablet, as well as a server that analyses the data from the sensor.
The interventions are based on Parenting Behavioral Therapy, which has been shown to be effective in addressing the needs of children with ADHD and their parents.
The therapy teaches parents the skills they need to work on and has been shown to have long-term effects for both parent and child. It has been shown to improve self-control and self-awareness in children and reduce parental stress.
Parents are usually taught when or how to use these strategies with their children. But sticking with the therapy is difficult, especially during times of the day that are particularly stressful.
ParentGuardian was designed to identify these stressful moments and remind parents of these strategies, which they sometimes forget in the heat of the moment.
“Instead of focusing an individual in need we are looking at how to build and design technology for the family as a whole and what’s beneficial for them,” said Laura Pina, a Ph.D. student in computer science.
“We wanted to help parents to be the parents they want to be.”
Pina worked with 10 parents over three months to design the system.
Parents used the prototype at home for 14 days and wore the stress monitors every day between 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. — a time of peak stress when they were juggling homework, making dinner, and assisting their children’s other activities.
Overall, parents reported that the app was very helpful, giving it an average rating of 5.1 on a scale of one to seven.
The system includes four different items, The first is the stress sensor, the second is the phone, which reminds parents of effective strategies and also transmits data from the sensor to a backend server, where the sensor data is analyzed to detect when the parent is stressed. Finally, a tablet serves as a second medium to remind parents of useful interventions.
The wrist sensor measures electrical activity on the user’s skin.
When users experience positive or negative feelings, they secrete very small quantities of sweat, which changes the amount of electricity their skin conducts.
The sweat is not visible to the naked eye, but is enough to change the amount of electricity conducted by the skin, which is used for stress detection. Users also self-reported when they were feeling stress throughout the day as a form ground truth.
Researchers then compared the data from the sensors with the users’ self-reports about stress to train a machine learning algorithm to detect the stress events in real-time.
All users in the study had children with ADHD and eight out of the 10 parents were mothers.
During the first seven days, users trained the app by wearing the wrist sensor and self-reporting on their smart phone when they were feeling stressed.
Using the App to Manage Stress
During the second week of testing, users again wore the sensors. But this time, they also received prompts with strategies to manage their stress based on the data their sensors were transmitting.
The prompts appeared on users’ smart phones — Microsoft’s Windows Phone 8, and on Microsoft Surface tablets placed in the areas where they usually spent time with their children — the kitchen, family room, or living room.
Parents received these “heat of the moment” prompts no more than once every half hour. Examples of prompts include:
- Fill your lungs with air: Take three full, deep breaths;
- Silently count down from 5. Imagine each number changing colors;
- You are your child’s role model. What do you want to teach?
Parents also received a different category of prompts every 90 minutes to two hours during the day. These prompts were more reflective in nature and designed to get parents to think about their parenting styles.
Some examples include:
- Give your child descriptive praise when they do something that you would like to see more often, e.g.: “Thank you for doing what I asked straight away;”
- For every one bad thing you say, find three good points to highlight;
- Be consistent, be predictable, be prepared;
- Model what you want to see.
Parents said they found the heat of the moment prompts particularly useful and that their partners were more likely to provide support when the smart phone pinged — indicating that the parent was stressed.
Some parents took advantage of quiet moments to review reflective strategies and prepare themselves before a stressful situation occurred.
Based on the insights gained, researchers have applied for a grant to conduct a study on a larger number of parents. “Ideally, all parents, or guardians, and children in a household should wear sensors,” Pina said.
Some parents in the study reported that the prompts would be even more useful if they occurred before stress reached its peak.
This would mean that computer scientists will have to find a way to refine their data analysis so that the system doesn’t just detect peak moments of stress but also stress build up.
During the second week of the study, the system detected stress accurately 78 percent of the time.
Researchers believe access to voice and other data will help them be more accurate. But they have to balance this with the users’ need for privacy.
“System design has to be very sensitive to the context of using it in real life, with real people,” Pina said.