Healthtech/Analysis/

Does the world need a ‘Disney for mental health’?

Mindfulness app Aumio claims to offer exactly that — but opinions on tackling children's mental health with tech are split

By Eliza Levinson

Masawa

Aumio is a Berlin-based mindfulness app for children claiming to be the “Disney for mental health” — and it’s finding an enthusiastic audience. In May, the company closed its seed funding round to the tune of €3m. Is there a future in this highly sensitive market — and if so, is that a good thing?

How does Aumio work? 

Aumio is an audio-first app launched in 2020 that aims to teach mindfulness to children up to 10 years old. The widget offers some gamified elements, but is primarily a compendium of original audio meditations, stories and soundscapes, mostly under 10 minutes and available in English or German. 

The app costs $49.99 annually, with limited free content, and has been used by 200k families, according to the startup. In Germany, Aumio subscriptions are even covered by some of the most widely-used health insurers, including Techniker Krankenkasse, Allianz and Siemens-Betriebskrankenkasse. 

Meditations include body-scanning exercises or nighttime relaxation tracks. Some are designed to respond to acute situations, like “SOS Focus”, “SOS Worries” and “SOS Tantrum”. A calm speaker will prompt meditators to ask themselves questions like: “Am I warm or cold? Does my feeling have a colour?”

The app collects limited data on its users, anonymously tracking how long the app is used and which content is most popular. Tilman Wiewinner, one of Aumio’s four cofounders, says: “A large amount of our users really use the app as part of an evening routine. So they’d use it to calm down after dinner, or to help the kids fall asleep.” 

What’s the point?

“In Germany, if you want to go to a therapist, forget about it,” says Joshua Haynes, the founder of Berlin-based wellbeing-focused VC firm Masawa. “There’s such a dearth of child psychologists, psychiatrists, therapists [and] counsellors.” According to a 2020 study, 40% of patients seeking psychiatric help in Germany experienced waiting times of three to nine months before they can begin treatment. 20% wait between six and nine months. 

“Ideally, we grow what we have, and also add apps on top of it”

Clinical psychologist-turned-researcher Bettina Moltrecht, who used to practise in Germany, is familiar with this issue. Still, she says that finding a therapist in her new home base, the UK, “is probably worse”. Though population data on therapeutic waiting times in the UK is scarce, a 2018 study by the British Medical Association (BMA) found that 3,700 patients seeking mental health care waited six months to access a therapist. Another 1,500 had to wait for over a year — and this was before the pandemic, which the wealthy nations club the OECD described as “a significant and unprecedented worsening of population mental health”. 

Both Moltrecht and Haynes add that technology, including apps, are not substitutes for in-person therapy, but can be useful resources as part of a holistic approach. “Ideally, we grow what we have, and also add apps on top of it,” Moltrecht says. 

Why now?

In early 2021, Hamburg’s leading hospital, University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf (UKE) published groundbreaking research about the impact of the pandemic on children’s mental health, revealing that nearly one in three children now suffer from psychological distress. 

Before that study, Wiewinner says Aumio was “talking to health insurers, but they weren’t really interested in a mental health solution for kids”. Following the paper’s publication, Aumio’s standing changed considerably. “We actually had inbound interest coming from health insurers to work with us,” he tells Sifted. 

Still, Wiewinner emphasises that Aumio is not a replacement for therapy, particularly for children with acute conditions, but rather, “a preventative tool for mental wellbeing” for the general public. 

What do mental health care professionals think?

Wieminner argues that the app’s audio-first structure and meditative content encourages users to become more intentional about their smartphone use from an early age. “When the audio story starts, in the story, we actually [say], ‘Okay, now put the phone away; find a comfortable place and close your eyes, if you want,’” Wiewinner says. “In a very natural way, [we’re] helping them to develop a more mindful relationship with the device.” 

“In order to learn how to self-regulate, [children] first need to have someone co-regulate, which is [a] basic human need”

Berlin-based therapist Chloé Huth isn’t convinced. She believes that young children — particularly those under 14, exactly the base Aumio targets — need to learn to handle their emotions through in-person interactions, which shouldn’t be outsourced to technology.

“A lot of children have regulation challenges: how to cope [with] frustration, stress, fatigue and fears. In order to learn how to self-regulate, [children] first need to have someone co-regulate, which is [a] basic human need.”

Can that co-regulation happen virtually, or through screens? Not in Huth’s opinion. “Our nervous system needs touch and human sounds to feel better. It’s a very somatic experience.” By contrast, smartphone use is “a lot about dissociation”, a learned response to discomfort caused by strong emotions. “It’s not the right thing to avoid that uncomfortable emotion,” she says, “but [to] teach the child how to be comfortable with that.” 

Moltrecht disagrees: “As a child, I listened to stories at night to fall asleep. How is that different just because it’s on an app?” 

What do parents think?

According to Wiewinner, the majority of parents using Aumio are young digital natives who are more open to the idea of integrating technology into their parenting. One such parent is Nicole Sevindik, an aspiring youth health educator living in Austria who uses Aumio three to five times a week with her five-year-old daughter. 

Sevindik explains that her child is “a little bit quirky and restless sometimes”, so they’ve been experimenting with meditation. She has never been to formal therapy. Typically, her five-year-old is permitted to choose one short Aumio track to listen to before bed. “She really likes the stories and meditations,” Sevindik says. “The designs are very child-friendly and easy to use. The fact that there is a whole universe around a little astronaut, and everything is connected, is very cute, and my child loves this.” 

Is this a sustainable business model?

Weiwinner argues that even if parents are sceptical about letting their kids use devices, they will have to confront that the digital realm will inevitably intersect with their children’s lives at some point. He says that Aumio hopes to make sure what children are consuming is high quality.

Calm and Headspace were phenomenal to get people thinking about meditation [but] the stickiness isn’t there”

“We are not looking at [Aumio] like Netflix or Facebook,” Wiewinner says, companies that “want to basically maximise the time spent on the app”. Instead, “we want to provide the maximum value to the families and the children”. But is that financially viable?  

Both Moltrecht and Haynes emphasise how few apps — regardless of their offerings — are able to retain usership over time. “Calm and Headspace were phenomenal to get people thinking about meditation,” Haynes explains, but “the stickiness isn’t there. If you look at their churn, it’s quite high.”

By simultaneously selling directly to parents and health insurance providers, Aumio may be able to stay afloat as it expands internationally. But can that work long-term, and is it scalable in countries without robust public healthcare options? Only time will tell.

Eliza Levinson is a freelance writer based in Berlin.

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