Children are not adults. That seems to be an obvious statement. They’re physically and mentally different from grown-ups, and are treated as such. Medically, there’s an entire specialty devoted to them (pediatrics, whose patients range from newborn to 18 years old). One would assume, then, advances in healthcare technology would keep such differences in mind. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. Instead, such tech is basically recalibrated from adults to a child or teen’s physiology and mental state, which is like tailoring an adult tux or wedding gown to drape over a gawky teenager. You can do it, but it really doesn’t look good to anyone, especially to the teen.

Several businesses, thankfully, have risen to address children’s unique healthcare wants and needs. This post will cover one of these requirements in depth (mental health) and its technological solution. 

Digital Natives

The media refers to children born after 1980 as millennials (up to 1996) and Gen Z (1997 to 2012). Combined, they make up more than 50 percent of the population in the United States. A big difference they have with the prior generations is familiarity with today’s technology. They grew up with the Internet, apps, and smartphones, and are comfortable using them. Several national surveys show over 90 percent of teens go online on a daily basis. And it’s not just for a short period of time: one report showed teens spend nearly 4 hours online each day, a figure which nearly doubled during the COVID-19 lockdown. “There now are more than 150 million young people in the digital native generations – the Millennials and Gen Z,” states Margaret Laws, president and CEO of HopeLab. “These young people have had digital technologies their entire lives. They shop, socialize, learn and work online – and now almost exclusively via mobile.”

These “digital natives” (great name, by the way) are active users of digital health products like step-tracking apps, and wearable health and fitness devices like sensor-laden watches, wrist bands, rings, skin patches, eyeglasses, and clothes. Many have high hopes for cutting-edge healthcare technologies like the Internet of Things for health and telehealth, which have been extensively covered in this blog. 

Unfortunately, there’s a danger with all this information readily available at one’s literal fingertips. Teens may wonder, for example, why their physiques don’t match their favorite celebrity or social media influencers’ (doctored) image despite achieving the same number of steps meticulously tracked on their smartwatch. 

For these and other reasons, it’s imperative for both the public and private sectors to go online when trying to reach today’s youth. As Tanya Accone, senior adviser on innovation at Unicef, points out,

“the digital space is where young people are. We need to interact with them where they are comfortable. From an operational standpoint, digital tools can be highly effective in scaling up [healthcare projects].”

Mental Health is Top Priority

Familiarity and comfort with technology is not the only difference today’s youth have with older adults. Mental health (63 percent) tops as their priority when researching on health care, followed by reproductive health (50 percent), and substance abuse (42 percent). In contrast, traffic accidents, suicide, and violence are the three highest causes of death globally among the young. 

One can see some overlap, especially in the case of suicide. A recent advisory report from the US Surgeon General on the mental state of the young revealed suicide attempts among adolescent boys rose 4 percent between 2019 through early 2021, and a staggering 51 percent by adolescent girls in the same period of time. The pandemic is (rightly) pointed as the main culprit of this sharp uptick, as millennials and Gen Z faced unprecedented stress from long-term physical separation from peers / dating partners, lack of social opportunities, to the loss of loved ones. On the latter, over 144,000 children endured the death of at least one parent or grandparent during the pandemic in the US alone. 

Governments and businesses have been turning to telehealth solutions to deal with this rise in attempted suicides. Many youths cannot drive due to age, lack of a vehicle, or no access to reliable public transportation. Telehealth, which connects the young client’s computer or smartphone to the therapist’s medical grade computer for a virtual session, is hoped to be the answer to those logistical hurdles of getting to and from frequent appointments. Even simple assessment of patients by therapists is increasingly being done virtually. And on the cutting edge of telehealth is the use of virtual reality and augmented reality to connect client and therapist

“The increase in investment in youth mental health tech companies is a big boost for young people,” Allyson Plosko, director of Telosity by Vinaj Ventures, an investment company that helps fund companies working to improve the mental health and well-being of young people, said in a statement. “As we mention in the report, nearly half of children who need mental health support don’t get the care they need. We must do a better job of reaching kids in need. Technology-enabled solutions can offer a scalable way of delivering mental health support, especially for low-acuity patient populations, which is why we think investing in companies developing these solutions is a critical step to increasing access for young people.” 

Gen Alpha: Still Under Parental Care

Healthcare tech for the digital native obviously extends beyond mental well-being. But what about the next generation? Here’s Generation Alpha, who were born in 2012, and are considered to be the most tech savvy of them all (once they’ve grown a little). Here are some of the issues they and their parents are currently facing, and the tech solutions for each one: 

  • NovaSight uses a combination of what appears to be a medical tablet and special glasses to help deal with vision issues like lazy-eye (amblyopia). 
  • Huckleberry provides customized sleep programs for children developed by AI
  • Cradlewise is a “smart crib” that monitors a baby’s sleep pattern and adjusts its rocking motion depending where they’re in the sleep cycle.
  • KixCare provides parents access to pediatricians and support staff virtually and in-clinic seven-days-a-week in the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec. 

Today’s youth have different skills and priorities, and should be treated as such. Healthcare solutions addressing mental health, for instance, should be tailored to these digital natives’ differing perspectives. If your organization deals with Millennials, Generation X or even younger, contact our Cybernet experts to discuss your specific technological requirements.