Skip to main content

27 July 2023

New parenting app reduced child emotional difficulties during COVID-19 pandemic

New research finds a novel parenting smartphone app, developed by researchers at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King’s College London and South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, reduced child emotional problems during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Parenting Under Pressure as Practical Kindness2

Published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research (JMIR), the Supporting Parents And Kids Through Lockdown Experiences (SPARKLE) trial – a collaboration between King’s and the University of Oxford – investigated whether Parent Positive was effective in reducing child emotional and conduct problems and improving parents’ own wellbeing, and whether improvements were achieved in a cost-effective way.

Researchers followed 646 parents with children aged between four and 10 between May and July 2021, with 320 receiving access to Parent Positive compared with 326 who did not. They found that Parent Positive reduced child emotional problems after both one and two months of access to the app, compared to not having app access at all. This was found to be a cost-effective way of reducing children’s emotional problems.

We believe our study is the first clinical trial of a parenting support app designed specifically to support parents during the COVID-19 pandemic. In response to the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, we quickly developed Parent Positive to help mitigate the impact on children’s emotional and conduct problems. We found that, on average, families who had access to the app reported reduced child emotional problems compared to those who did not. The findings highlight that, if implemented across the general UK population, Parent Positive could have the potential to make a significant contribution to reducing child emotional problems.

Dr Melanie Palmer, Postdoctoral Research Associate at King’s IoPPN and first author of the JMIR article

The COVID-19 lockdowns presented parents with some extraordinary challenges. Getting face-to-face support to them using traditional approaches was very challenging during this period. The results from the SPARKLE trial highlight the potential of digital approaches as a way of disseminating advice and support to parents that can produce tangible results. We are hopeful that this approach can have many uses in the post-COVID world in providing a resource to families in underserved or marginalised communities or utilised as part of first-line interventions in hard pressed services.

Edmund Sonuga-Barke, Professor of Developmental Psychology, Psychiatry & Neuroscience at King’s IoPPN and Principal Investigator on SPARKLE

Contrary to the researchers’ expectations, access to the app did not lead to significant improvements in child conduct problems, despite the advice on managing difficult behaviours it provided. Researchers also found no evidence that those who had access to the app experienced less parent psychological distress, parental child-related worries, or family conflict than those who did not. In fact, there was an increase in child-related parental worries after two-months. The researchers explain that this may be due to the difficulties related to changing parenting styles and routines, or the increase in awareness of good parenting practices leading to insecurity about their parenting skills.

The researchers collaborated with parents of young children across all aspects of the study to better understand their views on how the app could address their support needs. They are now co-developing the app further to improve usability, increase engagement and improve the positive effects for parents and their children.

This work is part of the King’s Maudsley Partnership for Children and Young People, a unique collaboration between specialist clinicians from the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust and leading academics at King’s College London to find new ways to predict, prevent and treat mental health disorders in children and young people. The Partnership will be based in the new Pears Maudsley Centre which will be home to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) inpatient and outpatient services and clinical research facilities, set to open in 2024.

SPARKLE was funded by the UK Research and Innovation Economic and Social Research Council (UKRI-ESRC).

‘The effectiveness of a universal digital parenting intervention designed and implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic: Evidence from a rapid implementation randomised controlled trial within a cohort’ (Melanie Palmer, Nicholas Beckley-Hoelscher, James Shearer, Katarzyna Kostyrka-Allchorne, Olly Robertson, Marta Koch, Oliver Pearson, Petr Slovak, Crispin Day, Sarah Byford, Kimberley Goldsmith, Polly Waite, Cathy Creswell & Edmund J S Sonuga-Barke) was published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research (DOI: 10.2196/44079).

For more information, please contact Amelia Remmington (Communications & Engagement Officer).

In this story

Edmund Sonuga-Barke

Professor of Developmental Psychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience

Melanie Palmer

Postdoctoral Research Associate