Young people across Europe are being recruited to a trial to put their smartphone usage to good use, via an app designed to prevent anxiety and depression and improve wellbeing.

Researchers at the University of Glasgow are part of the University of Exeter-led, pan-European project to recruit young people aged between 16 and 22 years to use the app. It brings together the latest research on self-monitoring, self-help techniques and cognitive behavioural therapy so that young people can learn about their own emotions, develop resilience, and build well-being.

The app’s data will help researchers learn more about mood, emotion and mental health in young people. Understanding what influences young people’s emotions and wellbeing is particularly relevant now because of the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on young people.

The ECOWEB project, which is funded through Horizon 2020, the European Commission’s framework programme for Research and Innovation, will roll out from October 2020 to May 2021. Thousands of young people will be offered free access in this, the largest trial of its kind, designed to test whether technology can help improve young people’s mental health.

Called the MyMoodCoach app, it will ask users to log their mood and emotions each day, giving them an overview of their own emotional patterns.  The app will also offer 2/3rds of its users features and strategies to help directly with emotional well-being. This random allocation will allow researchers to test which elements in the app work best to support young people.

Rod Taylor, Professor of Population Health Research at the MRC/CSO Social & Public Health Sciences Unit at UofG’s Institute of Health and Wellbeing, contributed to the study design and is a project co-applicant. Professor Taylor said: “ECoWeB is an important an ambitious study aimed at improving the mental health of young people – including potentially our own University of Glasgow students – through access to an innovative app based intervention.”

The project involves 13 collaborators from across 8 countries in Europe: the UK, Germany, Spain, Denmark, Czech Republic, Greece, Switzerland and Belgium. In the UK, the trial, led by the University of Exeter, involves the University of Glasgow and University of Oxford; and, across Europe, it involves Ludwig Maximilian University, Munich; University of Gent, University Jaume 1, Castellon, Spain, as well as technology companies Monsenso in Denmark and AudEERING in Germany.

Professor Ed Watkins, of the University of Exeter, said: “This is the first large-scale trial of its kind. We’re aiming to use mobile technology to equip young people to understand and manage their own emotions, to improve their wellbeing and reduce the risk of mental health issues. Crucially, the advice and available tools will be tailored to what is most useful to them. Finding scalable ways to help young people is critical right now because we already know that COVID-19 and its disruption on daily life is having a huge impact on the well-being of young people – with recent studies finding the largest increase in self-reported distress in this age group. We are therefore keen to see if a digital self-help approach can help young people stay mentally well in these difficult times.”

Professor Watkins said the majority of the apps currently available for young people had not been rigorously tested and there was little evidence to support their use.

He said: “The ECoWeB project is the first to combine all of these approaches in a mobile app that is both evidenced-based and designed to look great and appeal to younger people. It has the potential to be a breakthrough moment in mental health research, supporting young people to live better lives in their relationships, work and social lives.”