Researchers and clinicians at NYU Langone Health have launched a new app that studies children’s food preferences and emotions to better understand picky eating in young children and provide real-time suggestions for parents.
When to Wonder: Picky Eating is the first tool to launch from the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry’s When to Wonder platform, which will address child development concerns that many parents share.
Participants are screened for eligibility and then prompted to give informed consent to be enrolled in the study after downloading the app. The data collected through the research study is anonymized and securely stored at NYU Langone Health to enable researchers to examine children’s emotions, behaviors, and development as well as the impact of social and demographic influences, parent–child interactions, and other risk factors on young children’s development and mental health.
“This is an exciting moment in the field of child mental health,” says Helen L. Egger, MD, the Arnold Simon Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, chair of the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and founder and co-director of the WonderLab at NYU Langone. “Providing this new tool directly to parents accomplishes two important goals. First, it helps families make well-informed decisions for their children. Equally important, child mental health experts will learn from the information shared by the study’s participants to expand our understanding of mental health in children everywhere.”
Picky eating is common among children, and parents of picky eaters often find themselves lacking the knowledge they need to address their child’s distinct challenges and needs. The Picky Eating app, intended for use with children age 6 and under, employs questionnaires, a child-friendly food sort game, and video activities, all completed on a smartphone to gather information from both children and parents.
The main feature of the app is a food sort game using high-quality images of foods; children and parents separately play the game, swiping through to indicate whether a food is “yummy” or “yucky.” Then parents play the same game answering the question “Will your child eat this?” Afterward, the parent and child can compare answers by viewing their matches. Another interactive feature enables children to watch short videos while the front-facing camera records a video of the child, allowing computer vision tools to characterize the child’s emotions and attention.
The app offers parents evidence-based advice on their child’s food preferences, eating behaviors, and emotions, and provides suggestions on how to support their child’s healthy eating. In some cases, families are encouraged to seek further consultation with their healthcare providers.
A New Approach to Mental Health
Researchers plan to launch additional digital tools on the When to Wonder platform, addressing other common early childhood challenges including temper tantrums, anxiety, and sleep. In each domain, the app will serve as a tool providing concrete advice for parents and caregivers about their children.
All participants in the Picky Eating study have the option to enroll in future studies so that the WonderLab team can collect a larger body of knowledge about a range of children’s emotions and behaviors. By doing so, researchers hope to use this broad, population-based information to learn more about child mental health and inform new and innovative approaches to support children’s healthy development.
“The rise of telemedicine and the widespread prevalence of smartphones in every home is creating an exciting paradigm shift in the way mental health professionals reach those in need of care and guidance,” says Timothy L. Verduin, PhD, clinical assistant professor and Director of Technology Innovation in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and co-director of the WonderLab. “This new apps-based initiative is a novel way to address the global lack of access to care and knowledge about child mental health, by putting evidence-based information right in a parent’s pocket.”
The Picky Eating app and larger When to Wonder platform are developed by the WonderLab, a digital health initiative bringing together experts in mental health and digital technology within the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
The WonderLab collaborates closely with the Digital DesignLab, a collaboration between the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Medical Center Information Technology (MCIT), and the Department of Population Health, as well as with outside technology partners. Through these interdisciplinary collaborations the WonderLab seeks to close the knowledge gap in the field of child mental health by providing groundbreaking tools to deliver science-based knowledge directly to children and families.
“Our team of child psychiatrists, psychologists, medical ethicists, data scientists, software engineers, and designers is dedicated to creating digital tools that are well designed, functional, secure, scalable, and fun to use,” says Devin Mann, MD, associate professor in the Departments of Population Health and Medicine, senior director of Informatics Innovation, MCIT, and leader with the Digital DesignLab. “It’s uniquely rewarding to help families on an individual level while also developing a large-scale database of information that could lead us in exciting new directions to address the needs of families across the country and around the world.”