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New research finds a novel parenting smartphone app, developed by researchers at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King’s College London and South London, and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, reduced child emotional problems during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The app, Parent Positive, was designed specifically to support parents during COVID-19 lockdowns. It provides evidence-based online resources, advice on common parenting challenges, and access to expert support.
Published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research, the Supporting Parents And Kids Through Lockdown Experiences (SPARKLE) trial—a collaboration between King’s College and the University of Oxford—investigated whether Parent Positive was effective in reducing child emotional and conduct problems and improving parents’ own well-being, and whether improvements were achieved in a cost-effective way.
Researchers followed 646 parents with children aged between 4 and 10 years between May and July 2021, with 320 receiving access to Parent Positive compared with 326 who did not. They found that Parent Positive reduced child emotional problems after both 1 and 2 months of access to the app, compared to not having app access at all. This was found to be a cost-effective way of reducing children’s emotional problems.
“We believe our study is the first clinical trial of a parenting support app designed specifically to support parents during the COVID-19 pandemic. In response to the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, we quickly developed Parent Positive to help mitigate the impact on children’s emotional and conduct problems. We found that, on average, families who had access to the app reported reduced child emotional problems compared to those who did not. The findings highlight that, if implemented across the general UK population, Parent Positive could have the potential to make a significant contribution to reducing child emotional problems.” – Dr Melanie Palmer, postdoctoral research associate at King’s College IoPPN and first author of the Journal of Medical Internet Research article
“The COVID-19 lockdowns presented parents with some extraordinary challenges. Getting face-to-face support to them using traditional approaches was very challenging during this period. The results from the SPARKLE trial highlight the potential of digital approaches as a way of disseminating advice and support to parents that can produce tangible results. We are hopeful that this approach can have many uses in the post-COVID world in providing a resource to families in underserved or marginalised communities or utilised as part of first-line interventions in hard pressed services.” – Edmund Sonuga-Barke, professor of developmental psychology, psychiatry, and neuroscience at King’s College IoPPN and principal investigator on SPARKLE
Contrary to the researchers’ expectations, access to the app did not lead to significant improvements in child conduct problems, despite the advice provided on managing difficult behaviors. Researchers also found no evidence that those who had access to the app experienced less parent psychological distress, parental child-related worries, or family conflict than those who did not. In fact, there was an increase in child-related parental worries after 2 months. The researchers explain that this may be due to the difficulties related to changing parenting styles and routines or the increase in awareness of good parenting practices leading to insecurity about their parenting skills.
The researchers collaborated with parents of young children across all aspects of the study to better understand their views on how the app could address their support needs. They are now codeveloping the app further to improve usability, increase engagement, and improve the positive effects for parents and their children.
SPARKLE was funded by the UK Research and Innovation Economic and Social Research Council (UKRI-ESRC).
Palmer M, Beckley-Hoelscher N, Shearer J, et al. The Effectiveness and Cost-Effectiveness of a Universal Digital Parenting Intervention Designed and Implemented During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Evidence From a Rapid-Implementation Randomized Controlled Trial Within a Cohort. J Med Internet Res. 2023;25:e44079.
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