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“My child is happier and more confident since using Ollee”

Dad and son using a tablet together

By Marc McLaren

Children need support now more than ever. The continued lockdowns have wreaked havoc on their education, torn them away from their friends and left many with a sense of foreboding about the future.

The consequences are stark. In July, an NHS report identified one in six 5-16 year olds as having a probable mental disorder – up from one in nine in 2017. Our own research, conducted with Ipsos MORI in October, found that one in three parents thought their child’s mental health had worsened during lockdown.

As a parent – or someone with parenting responsibility – you know your child better than anyone. You’re probably the first to know when they’re struggling with an emotional problem, and the first to help them with it. 

That said, it can sometimes be hard to spot when your child is struggling with their mental health, particularly as many young people find it difficult to tell a trusted adult that they need help.

That’s why we designed our new app Ollee to help parents do something they do naturally and as a matter of course: support their children. And the early signs are that it’s working.

A virtual friend for your child

Ollee is a digital friend for children aged 8-11 and their parents, created by Parent Zone and funded by BBC Children In Need’s A Million & Me initiative.

It’s free to use and works by asking children what they want to talk about, then offering them advice about that subject. They can also match the subject with an emotion – so they can tell Ollee that they’re feeling stressed about school, or angry with their friends, for instance.

Parents can also get information about the same topics, and both parties can share that advice via linked accounts, in doing so opening up a new channel of communication.

“It made it more comfortable for him to talk about his feelings with me”

Since launching in October 2020, thousands of people have used Ollee, giving us insights into what children want to talk about and how the app might be helping them.

Parents think that it’s a useful tool in encouraging their child to reflect on and discuss their emotions.

One told us, “I found it easier to explore things and draw out what’s gone on in the day,” while another reflected that their child was “more willing to talk about their feelings” after using Ollee.

And while Ollee isn’t itself a tool for treating mental health issues – it’s designed more to help prevent problems developing in the first place – some parents feel it has changed their child’s mood for the better.

“My child is happier and more confident,” said one, while another suggested that their child had “more confidence” after using the app.

Teachers, too, have given us positive feedback: “Ollee has helped my class to scaffold and express their concerns when in class discussions,” one KS2 teacher told us. “As a result, one of the students found the confidence to seek help both at school and home to resolve a cyber-bullying worry.”

So children, parents and teachers are all finding Ollee helpful – but what are they finding it helpful with?

Happy with their friends, confused about their bodies, worried about the world

At the widest level, ‘School’, ‘Friends’ and ‘Family’ are the most popular subjects, among both children and parents. ‘School’ has had the most visits overall, but among children ‘Friends’ has had slightly more visits – which may in itself be an interesting reflection on most children’s priorities.

The other three topics – ‘Body’, ‘Internet’ and ‘The world’ – are all roughly on a par, but quite a way behind the first three. That’s in line with what we’d expect to see: school, friends and family are the most important factors in many children’s lives, after all.

When it comes to emotions, there’s a clear winner – and that’s ‘Happy’.

This might seem counterintuitive for an app designed to help children with potential problems, but it hasn’t surprised us. We decided very early on to include ‘Happy’ as an option within Ollee, because we hope children will use it regularly to process how they’re feeling – whether that’s good or bad. 

We can also see which emotions children most frequently express about particular subjects. Among those selecting ‘Body’, for instance, ‘Confused’ is the most common emotion, but for ‘Friends’ it’s ‘Happy’ and for ‘The world’ it’s ‘Worried’ – hardly surprising right now.

We know how difficult lockdown is for many families, but we believe Ollee really can help parents support their child’s mental wellbeing at this time. We hope you’ll find it useful.  

Main image: Prostock Studio/stock.adobe.com


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Ollee: your helpful digital friend

Find out more about Ollee

Early warnings: how to spot when your child needs emotional help