Pediatric Buzz

Reducing childhood anxiety, there’s an App for that.

Whether they are scared of the dark or nervous on their first day of school, all children experience some level of anxiety.  Anxiety most commonly occurs in phases and fades quickly. However, some children suffer from an Anxiety Disorder, where they experience fear, nervousness or shyness intensely and persistently.  This can be extremely debilitating and lead to many negative effects on their social development and educational performance. Unfortunately, anxiety disorders are common, as roughly 6.5% of youth are affected at any given time. Luckily, advances in psychology and technology can help in reducing childhood anxiety.

Luckily, treatments such as cognitive based therapy (CBT) have been shown to reduce anxiety levels in children at impressive rates.  CBT is a therapeutic treatment that focuses on teaching children to recognize, confront and cope with their anxiety. This acute therapeutic treatment has been a successful method of reducing childhood anxiety to sub-clinical thresholds in children and can even be as effective as medication.

Even though it can be highly effective, CBT is far from perfect, as 40%-50% of youth do not fully respond to CBT therapy.  This is often caused by the difficulty of completing a CBT treatment plan that can require up to 20 total weekly sessions. The typical 4-5 month commitment can be difficult for families who have to contend with work, school and sports schedules, high costs and transportation issues.  This is particularly hard on families who live in communities that do not have nearby access to CBT practitioners.

With these issues in mind, Dr. Jennifer Silk and researchers at the University of Pittsburgh developed a Smartphone App to enhance CBT treatment and reduce time and financial costs for families with children suffering from anxiety disorders.   According to Dr. Silk, SmartCAT automatically notifies patients when it is time to practice skills, provides a comfortable and secure platform for therapists and patients to communicate, and encourages patients to practice by providing fun and interactive ways of learning.  For example, the app includes a “Chillax” section that teaches youth how to relax their muscles and deep breath, two strategies used in CBT for reducing anxiety.  

Tips for reducing anxiety in children

In 2019, Dr. Silk and colleagues found that including SmartCAT in a shorter CBT treatment led to better outcomes for children suffering from anxiety disorder.  Specifically, 67% of the participants no longer met DSM 5 criteria for any anxiety diagnosis at the end of treatment, and that number increased to 86% when re-measured 2 months later.  These results are very promising for the future treatment of childhood anxiety disorders, as SmartCAT and other app-based interventions have the potential to reduce the cost and increase the effectiveness of childhood anxiety disorder treatments.

By: Adam Magerman, Ph.D

Pediatric Buzz