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Mobile App/Sensor Designed to Help Parents Control Stress

ParentGuardian screen

ParentGuardian screen with stress-control message (Univ of California, San Diego)

4 June 2014. Computer scientists at University of California in San Diego and Microsoft Research designed a system for smartphones and tablets providing immediate research-based guidance for parents to control their stress. The team led by San Diego engineering Ph.D. candidate Laura Pina, with colleagues from Microsoft’s Visualization and Interaction for Business and Entertainment group — where Pina interned in 2013 — presented its findings at last month’s IEEE Conference on Pervasive Computing Technologies for Healthcare in Oldenburg, Germany, where they won the best paper award.

The system, called ParentGuardian, combines a sensor worn on the wrist with apps written for a smartphone and tablet communicating with a server that collects and analyzes the data. The interventions prepared and delivered by the system are based on research in parenting behavioral therapy that helps parents with special needs children deal with stress and improve self-control and self-awareness in the children.

Experience with parenting behavioral therapy indicates parents may learn the concepts, but often have difficulty applying the concepts in real-life stressful situations. ParentGuardian is designed to provide immediate feedback to parents when stress starts to build, and remind them of applicable principles from the therapy.

The sensor, worn on the wrist, measures electrical activity in the skin, based on perspiration emitted by the wearer that changes the electricity conducted, offering an indicator of stress. During development of the system, people testing the sensor also reported their self-described stress levels to help write a machine-learning algorithm that interprets skin electrical activity as a stress indicator.

Based on sensor readings, ParentGuardian provides parents with two kinds of prompts to their smartphones or alternatively to a tablet. The first type of prompt is designed to provide on-the-spot stress relief every half-hour, with messages such as, “Silently count down from 5. Imagine each number changing colors,” with an on-screen illustration supporting the message; see image at top.

The second type of prompt offers longer-term guidance, delivered 90 minutes to 2 hours, with reminders about parenting styles and strategies. An example: “For every one bad thing you say, find three good points to highlight.”

Pina and colleagues tested the system with 10 parents, 8 mothers and 2 fathers, all with children having attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or ADHD, a common disorder in childhood marked by hyperactivity and difficulty staying focused or paying attention. The parents wore the sensor for a week to train the system’s algorithm to respond to their stress levels, then started receiving the prompts and messages from the system during the second week of testing.

The parents testing the system gave it a favorable rating overall, and noted that their partners were more likely to provide support when they heard the system respond with messages. One of the parents remarked …

It made me aware of that I need to handle my stress differently. It made me aware of exactly which steps I’m taking to get me to be really stressed out, so it’s like self-awareness. If you’re stressed and you’re screaming at people, you don’t understand what’s going on.

Pina applied for funding to extend the testing to a larger group of parents. She also plans to improve the functionality of the system to measure voice levels as well as electrical activity in the skin to measure stress, without violating the parents’ privacy.

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