A digital ecosystem for Parenting for Lifelong Health

Parenting for Lifelong Health (PLH)

Parenting for Lifelong Health, with ‘parent’ referring to any primary caregiver, was initiated by UNICEF, WHO and academics from the Global South and North. IDEMS was brought in by Oxford university, after it had already become the largest-scale evidence-based parenting programme in low resource countries, to create digital tools with the potential of scaling out orders of magnitude further still. 

Evidence shows effectiveness of parenting programmes based on social learning theory. These work through improving positive parenting skills, building social support, improving parents’ and caregivers’ mental health and well-being, improving relationships among family members, and learning skills to deal with challenging behaviour, as well as reducing substance use and reducing economic hardship.

The aim is to reproduce some of these outcomes through a suite of open digital and blended initiatives and gather evidence of effectiveness related to each approach. The inability of face-to-face support to proceed during COVID, coupled with the additional parenting strains stemming from the pandemic has increased the urgency and needs for these interventions.

A digital ecosystem approach

The success of PLH has created an expansive network of implementation partners who are keen to innovate in collaboration with the core team towards hybrid and digital interventions as part of their portfolio of support. This is an enviable place to be but highlights the contrasting needs of different user groups. The initial steps PLH has taken towards digitisation, namely ParentApp, ParentText and ParentChat are naturally tailored to specific use cases, but these experiences have reinforced the desire to build a single integrated digital ecosystem.

This need for a coherent digital ecosystem has led us to conceptualise an ambitious implementation approach which will continue to provide sufficient technological challenge to keep IDEMS’s mathematical scientists interested and busy for the next few years at least. Our intention is create an integrated system which not only integrates a wide range of digital products but also serves the contrasting needs of key actors, specifically, centralised control for academic experts and distributed adaptability for implementors.

ParentApp     

The expansion of smartphone access around the world creates the opportunity to reach many families in need through mobile apps. ParentApp has been initially designed with an offline low-end android devices in the hands of a digital immigrant as the primary target audience. Its open codebase is primarily angular typescript, with steps towards a three-way separation of content, design and code.

The app is original in its targeting of parents of teenagers and the way it is design to facilitate a workshop like experience, mirroring the face-to-face PLH programme. It is conceived to be part of a blended offering with the potential to be used as a standalone support tool. It is currently undergoing research piloting leading to trials to ensure efficacy before general release.

IDEMS is set to continue development over the next few years and next steps include plans to build a suite of interconnected apps that would serve the varied needs of caregivers and their support structures. In particular in 2023 there are plans to develop a perinatal app to support new parents and a facilitators app to support face-to-face programmes.    

ParentText

Many digital immigrants have embraced social media communication tools as part of their daily lives. ParentText is a chatbot designed to meet them where they are and support them with parenting tips. It is built on UNICEF’s Rapid pro infrastructure with the hundreds of core content flows managed directly by the PLH team. Each deployment variant has not only language localisation but also content adaptation applied by local implementation partners.

COVID has highlighted the need for such tools to reach parents and ParentText is initially being piloted in five different contexts across the world, with A/B testing built in to study engagement. Following the pilots, full research trials are being planned to determine the social outcomes of parent interactions with the chatbot.

Integrated Research support

The heart of PLH is an academic researcher team who is passionate about making the latest evidence based parenting support approaches accessible to those who need them the most. This is achieved through extensive collaborative partnerships with implementors both large and small. Such close interaction with deployment also creates the opportunity to integrate research further building the evidence base. 

In its role developing the technological interventions IDEMS brings an uncommon additional perspective based on its expertise supporting development focused research. This role is coming to the forefront as the user data is starting to flow in and research questions are being integrated into localised deployments. The next few years will lead to interesting advances as we build tailored analytic tools to support integrated analyses for research, monitoring and evaluation.