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Author: Annemieke Groenenboom

1 in 3 young people have mental health problems, increasing the likelihood of risky behaviour and addictions. Especially young people with a lower socio-economic position struggle with their way of being.

“More equality in education and technologies for talent development are much needed,” says youth researcher Margot Peeters (UU). She calls on researchers from other disciplines to help think about a joint approach. From her Social Robotics Lab, Emilia Barakova (TU/e) sees immediate technological opportunities, for these young people but also for a broader scope.  

Margot Peeters and Emilia Barakova will talk about these pressing topics during our first Lunch & Learn meeting of 2024, on January 18. See more information here.

What is the problem? 

Pressure on the mental health in all young people is increasing. However, there are differences to be noticed between young people with a lower and higher socioeconomic position (SEP: based on education and income). Young people with lower SEP are at increased risk of mental health problems, mainly due to increasing poverty. A home environment with financial stress can lead to mental complaints such as anxiety, depression and even aggression. This in turn increases the likelihood of risky behaviour, such as cannabis use or unhealthy eating, eventually leading to drinking, drug use, gaming or other addictions.  

In addition, higher and lower SEP groups experience a different kind of stress. For young people with higher SEP, it is often due to high expectations: will I get my degree? Young people with lower SEP have more existential stress: Will my education lead to good job opportunities?  

What causes these differences?  

In addition to genetics and upbringing, the behaviour of young individuals is shaped by the environment they are raised in. Up until around the age of 14, this is predominantly influenced by the home environment. Next, the emphasis transitions to peers, with an increasing significance placed on status and prestige. Here, too, we see differences: at pre-vocational secondary education (vmbo), for instance, drinking increases status, while at higher secondary education (havo/vwo), status depends on more diverse factors, such as excelling at sports or learning.  

Research into smoking behaviour effectively illustrates these influences. Genetic and parental factors contribute to the IQ and level of impulse control in young individuals, which influences their level of education. In turn, the perception of smoking by classmates has a significant impact. In short, parents transmit factors that influence educational levels, which, in turn, serve as predictors for smoking behaviour. 

How can we reduce the risk of mental issues in young people with lower SEP?  

Young people need to regain a sense of belonging, because it is proven to reduce the breeding ground for mental issues. Not everyone acquires such values and traits from their home environment; therefore, schools play a vital role in fostering them. For example by creating a safe and pleasant school climate, paying attention to the individual learning process and making sure pupils feel seen and heard. However, a significant number of these young individuals attend pre-vocational education (vmbo), where these very aspects are under pressure.  

Therefore, I advocate for re-evaluation of all levels of education and subsequent differentiation between them. This is especially crucial for aiding young individuals in uncovering their talents, which in turn would enable them to pursue careers that align with their abilities and contribute positively to society. Technologies are indispensable in this, to map talents and introduce them to professions, including those they are not familiar with from their own social context.  

Given my expertise, I know a lot about youth development, but not about technology. So I call on other researchers, especially in the field of education and technology, to unleash their creativity. How can we synergize our knowledge for a better and healthier future for all young people? 

How can your expertise contribute to this request? 

We engage in the development of technologies, such as social robots capable of comprehending human interactions. These innovations are put into action through pilot programs, targeting educational objectives to enhance the mental well-being of children and young individuals. For example, we are investigating how robots can help children with autism develop social skills, such as starting a conversation. Soon we will also start projects for low-literacy and stress measurements in children.  

Young people with lower SEP fit well within our mission. With our expertise, we could, for instance, create a Virtual Reality platform where they try out professions and discover their talents. Additionally, this platform could provide them with immersive experiences, virtually exposing them to challenges including addiction and decision-making in a supermarket, fostering healthier choices. 

Why are these technologies so important?  

In the future, available resources may not suffice to assist all the children and young individuals requiring support, so the use of technologies, for example in the form of robots, is indispensable. Not to replace people, but to complement them. Additionally, there are many advantages to using technology. Children and young people love games and technological gadgets, so it fits well with their field of interest. Robots can also guide them endlessly – useful for a lot of repetition – and perform physical tasks, such as supporting physical exercises. Moreover, robots can simultaneously monitor the process. 

What are prerequisites for successful application? 

It is not the technology, but the users’ needs that guide our work. We think about how to translate these into a technology in a way that minimises negative effects? This requires close cooperation with experts who know the users well, such as medics, therapists and teachers. They teach us the users’ language, such as word choice and degree of repetition, which we translate into the technology. If you don’t do that well, users get bored and drop out.  

A project aimed at young people with lower SEP would therefore require collaboration with a sociologist like Margot Peeters. I am happy to explore the possibilities. But I am also happy to make my own appeal to other researchers to use our technological expertise, because the possibilities are endless. We are also open to more cooperation with UMC Utrecht and Wageningen University & Research, as connections there are still limited. 

Lunch & Learn session: Mentally healthy young people: Want to know more about the research of Margot Peeters and Emilia Barakova? Or do you see opportunities for collaboration? During our free online Lunch & Learn session, they will elaborate on their research and there will be plenty of room for ‘matchmaking’. Register here for the Lunch & Learn session on January 18, 2024.