Government-Sponsored Mental Health Apps for Teens Are Dangerous
By Peggy McClain |
“Even if just one life is saved.”
Who does not agree with a statement like this? It certainly tugs at the heartstrings, but what we often don’t hear is how many lives are lost or compromised due to what was deemed as a solution.
Last year the Teen Mental Health House Ad Hoc Committee was formed at the Arizona Legislature with this stated purpose:
The Ad Hoc Committee on Teen Mental Health, which will consist of members of the House of Representatives and of the community, is intended to research and review information regarding how substance abuse, depression and mental illness, bullying and social media, and other factors may affect mental health in youth and potential teen suicide. The committee shall work to identify potential solutions and make recommendations to public and private agencies with the goal of addressing teen mental health issues and improving access to mental health care.
Most of the time when governments choose committee members, it is so a pre-determined goal will be achieved. What the public sector continually lacks is the diligence to take a deep dive into issues and critically think about ramifications. Officeholders prefer politically expedient solutions, while education contractors benefit financially via lobbyists who peddle their wares.
The issues surrounding Arizona HB2635 are real and scary, whether one supports the bill or not. Representative Travis Grantham (R-LD14) was the Vice Chair of the Teen Mental Health Committee, and the personal stories he heard clearly moved him. He sponsored HB2635 which would allow local governing boards to provide a mental health app for teens to have on their phones simply for access to a suicide prevention line.
But high schools and colleges are already required by Arizona law to print a suicide hotline number on student IDs. While an app for quick access to a suicide hotline sounds lifesaving, there are long-term risks involved for a product like this that lacks proven results. According to a study conducted by Internet Safety Labs and published December 13, 2022, even apps customized for school districts are less safe compared to generic apps—as 96% of the apps recommended by school districts share personal information with third parties.
We know our phones are tracking and listening to us. Apps can be developed to pick up on keywords which may relate to a stressful situation or even just an argument a teen has with his or her parents. Apps are also programmed to pick up certain emojis. Schools could then be notified and intervene based on a narrative which has nothing to do with suicide. Meanwhile, the information the app gathered never goes away. Mental health information gleaned from an app may be a problem later in life when the child is applying for jobs or certain academic programs.
In addition, according to study by Internet Safety Labs, 61% of custom apps send information to Google, while 81% access location information. These apps synchronize with the student’s Chromebooks and other devices. This is especially unnerving in Arizona, which is a leading state for sex trafficking. On top of that, several Arizona school districts recognize that social media is contributing to youth mental health problems, and one is even suing Facebook, YouTube, and TikTok. Why would our legislature support an app which leads students to these platforms?
Representative Grantham has been looking at a similar mental health app used in Utah. The idea started as a pilot program, collected data, and through the data it was deemed necessary to expand the program. Now that the data is documented, the proponents call it “evidence-based.”
Due to pushback, Representative Grantham proposed adding an amendment to provide “guardrails” for the mental health app. Will guardrails tell us who is on the other end of a suicide hotline? Like former Superintendent Kathy Hoffman’s QChat, parents are circumvented while minors are talking with strangers their parents know nothing about.
One of the mental health apps used in Utah is Bark, which has an LGBTQIA+ page. Bark also links students to the Trevor Project, which steers children to gender ideology. At the same time, the child’s data is recorded forever. That is concerning, especially since Bark advertises the CDC as one of its partners. Exactly what is the government doing with the information collected while the minor is tracked?
Children are suffering from a lack of personal interactions with parents, teachers, and friends. Sending them to an app—especially sinister ones like this—only exacerbates the problem. The Arizona Legislature should vote no on HB2635. Gathering data on children is an outright assault on them.
Peggy McClain is a concerned citizen who advocates for accountability in Arizona’s schools. You can follower her on Twitter here.