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Conference to focus on smartphones as aid to well-being

November 4, 2014

Conference to focus on smartphones as aid to well-being

Here are two undisputed facts of American life today: Almost everybody has a smartphone, and smartphones can do almost anything you want them to do.

Shawna Lee

But Shawna Lee, assistant professor of social work, is focusing on one thing smartphones don't do, but could: deliver programs and information that will improve the mental health, psychological well-being, and social relationships of people who are underserved by social service agencies.

She recently was given $40,000 from the Office of Research's Social Science Annual Institute to convene a conference on campus to get it done.

The meeting will bring together scholars and tech experts to find ways to bridge the gap between the ability to build, market and deliver apps that would provide such "well-being" services, and the academic work that indicates what interventions are needed and by whom.

"I would love to see U-M and the School of Social Work come out at the forefront of innovative ways to use this technology to help people," Lee said.

Lee has been researching parenting, fatherhood, and child abuse for more than a decade, and in 2012 was principal investigator on a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to study the feasibility of a smartphone app to enhance the engagement of fathers.

Positive Tech conference

March 26-27 at the Institute for Social Research. Learn more or register.

Next funding round

Proposals are being accepted for the next round of the Social Sciences Annual Institute. Two projects will be funded, at up to $50,000 each. The deadline for submissions is Dec. 1. More information and instructions for submitting a proposal.

Other smartphone uses

Smartphones are proving to be valuable delivery tools and sources of data for researchers across campus in a number of other fields. Some examples.

The result of that work was the mDad app, which provides new fathers with information on developmental milestones and positive interactions with their children. The app is currently being field tested in southeastern Michigan.

She said that work is directly applicable to a wider effort to reach underserved groups through mobile phone apps, because parents experience separation from their children due to numerous factors including military service or non-residential father absence.

"Some families experience a lot of separation (between parents) for example," Lee said. "There's a lot of applicability of the mDad app to many kinds of families."

Lee's proposal for a conference called "Positive Technology: Utilizing Mobile Devices for Psychosocial Intervention" (Positive Tech for short) was the winning submission in the Social Science Annual Institute's sixth year of supporting innovative, interdisciplinary projects in the social sciences.

"Professor Lee's proposed research is exactly the type of research for which the SSAI is designed," said Toni Antonucci, associate vice president for research — social sciences and humanities, who administers the program.

"I believe the evaluation team was impressed with the interdisciplinarity of the project in that it brings together technology experts, social scientists, and service providers.  Also impressive is the degree to which this project has the potential to truly revolutionize mental health care and intervention."

The conference is scheduled for spring 2015, and will have two main goals:

• Bridge the gap between research and practice by facilitating communication between technology developers, academic researchers, and community representatives.

• Improve implementation of smartphone apps by sharing knowledge about community and cultural factors and entrepreneurship and marketing principles.

Invitees will include a number of U-M faculty and staff, including representatives from Office of Technology Transfer, Michigan-based technology companies and researchers from other universities.

Lee said OTT can highlight the important but sometimes-overlooked factors of marketing any apps that are eventually developed.

"Researchers don't think about things like that very much," she said. "To a user, it's a product. We're going to have to grapple with that a little more. … How do we get them to use it?"

She said that focusing on well-being is a developing area in the use of smartphone apps, which have successfully addressed improving physical activity with a growing number of fitness apps.

"We know many groups, and young people in particular, are using technology at very high rates. Many of these same people would benefit from interventions to promote well-being, such as the mDad app, designed to promote positive father engagement," she said.

"Technology may be one way to address gaps in service delivery and promote social justice goals."