(Photo courtesy of Kwanie)

By Dan Meisler

Shawna Lee

Here are two undisputed facts of American life today: Almost everybody has a smartphone, and smartphones seem to be able to do almost anything you want them to do. 

But Dr. Shawna Lee, an assistant professor in the School of Social Work, is focusing on one thing smartphones don’t do right now, but could: deliver programs and information that will improve the mental health, psychological well-being and social relationships of people who are underserved by social service agencies.

For over a decade, Lee has been researching parenting, fatherhood and child abuse. In 2012, she became principal investigator on a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to study the feasibility of a smartphone app to enhance the engagement of fathers. The result of that was the mDad app, which provides new fathers with information on developmental milestones and positive interactions with their children. The app is currently being field tested in southeastern Michigan.

Lee believes that work is directly applicable to a wider effort to reach underserved groups through mobile phone apps, because parents experience separation from their children due to numerous factors including military service or non-residential father absence.

“Some families experience a lot of separation (between parents), for example,” Lee said. “There’s a lot of applicability of the mDad app to many kinds of families.”

Recently she received a $40,000 award from the U-M Office of Research’s Social Science Annual Institute to convene a conference on campus to push further innovation. The meeting will bring together scholars and tech experts to find ways to bridge the gap between the ability to build, market and deliver apps that would provide such “well-being” services, and the academic work that indicates what interventions are needed and by whom.

Lee’s proposal for a conference called “Positive Technology: Utilizing Mobile Devices for Psychosocial Intervention” (or Positive Tech for short) was the winning submission in the Social Science Annual Institute’s sixth year of supporting innovative, interdisciplinary projects in the social sciences.

“Professor Lee’s proposed research is exactly the type of research for which the SSAI is designed,” said Toni Antonucci, associate vice president-social sciences and humanities in the Office of Research, who administers the program. “I believe the evaluation team was impressed with the interdisciplinarity of the project in that it brings together technology experts, social scientists and service providers. Also impressive is the degree to which this project has the potential to truly revolutionize mental health care and intervention.”

Scheduled for spring 2015, the conference has two main goals:
– Bridge the gap between research and practice by facilitating communication between technology developers, academic researchers and community representatives
– Improve implementation of smartphone apps by sharing knowledge about community and cultural factors and entrepreneurship and marketing principles.

Invitees will include a number of U-M faculty and staff, including representatives from Office of Technology Transfer; Michigan-based technology companies; and researchers from other universities.
Lee said OTT can highlight the important but sometimes-overlooked factors of marketing any apps that are eventually developed.

“Researchers don’t think about things like that very much,” she said. “To a user, it’s a product. We’re going to have to grapple with that a little more … (to figure out) how we get them to use it.”

She said that focusing on wellbeing is a developing area in the use of smartphone apps, which have successfully addressed improving physical activity with a growing number of fitness apps.

“We know many groups, and young people in particular, are using technology at very high rates. Many of these same people would benefit from interventions to promote wellbeing, such as the mDad app, designed to promote positive father engagement,” she said. “Technology may be one way to address gaps in service delivery and promote social justice goals.”

The Positive Tech conference will be held March 26-27, 2015, at the Institute for Social Research. Speakers are scheduled from U-M, Wayne State University, Indiana University, Survey Signal, Logic Solutions, Arbor Moon and HopeLab. Small-group discussions by research topic area are also planned.

For more information, and to register to attend, visit http://myumi.ch/Jdn5a