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Tackling sleep issues for youth with an app

An illustration of numerous individuals reclined in an open field at night with pillows, blankets, lamps, and other sleep-related imagery.

Young adults battling insomnia require a unique solution, and professor Colleen Carney is using an app to help. (Illustration by: Nicole Tang)

Bridging a gap in treatment for youth and young adults with mental health issues, psychology professor Colleen Carney has transformed her research into an app that targets young people’s sleep habits using cognitive behaviour therapy.

In 2015, professor Carney patented a sleep study tool, a diary of sorts that standardized how researchers evaluated insomnia. The result of an extensive research project that involved input from sleep experts around the world, Carney’s sleep tool was the first step toward creating her e-health solution.

From the sleep study tool, a low-fidelity app was developed with the help of Ryerson’s Chang School for use by professor Carney in her teaching and for her patients. Her research has shown that cognitive behaviour therapy has been an effective tool for battling insomnia. However, she discovered the methods that she was using weren’t a good fit for teens and young adults.

“One issue is that although pediatric medicine has boomed, there is a big gap for young adults and teens,” said professor Carney. “Even my pediatric colleagues struggle because their interventions are aimed at children, and the issues are not the same. Teens develop sleep issues because of a circadian shift that happens during puberty. Their alertness shifts, and sleepiness is delayed.” Professor Carney noted that teens employ different strategies than adults to cope with their insomnia, including sleeping for extended periods on weekends in an attempt to “catch up” on lost sleep. Disrupted sleep for young people can lead to a variety of more pressing issues such as anxiety, depression, substance abuse, and poor academic performance.

In order to create a patient-centered solution, she sought the input of young people. “We took the user feedback on our existing app and reimagined it into something that youth would want to use,” said professor Carney. Initially, she envisioned a gamified version of the app, but the youth made it clear they wanted something more straightforward. “We are building a tool in which they get real-time feedback,” she said.

The youth involved in the design workshops wanted choices for their sleep. They didn’t want a hard prescription of what to do and how to do it. “They are given suggestions on things like sleep times and how to make it easier to turn off their minds at night to help them get their sleep patterns back online,” said professor Carney.

Professor Carney is currently working with an industry partner to develop the app technology, and she hopes to make the app available to any young person who is struggling with sleep once the clinical trials are completed next year.

This research project is funded by a Canadian Institutes of Health Research grant and is  supported by one Master’s student and one PhD student.