#AcornHackAI — How Teenagers Hack Happiness — by Elena Sinel

Two months before the A.I. in Mental Health hackathon, a friend, founder of one very successful start-up was hospitalised and diagnosed with severe depression, anxiety and PTSD just as he raised his seed on CrowdCube; a week later my daughter came home distraught as she learned about a friend at school self-harming and being on strong medication whilst recovering from depression; another friend of hers could not get into Brit Academy due to onset of panic attacks and one of the teenagers from Acorn network tried to commit suicide 6 times and could no longer cope.

All this brought home memories of my mum suffering from frequent bouts of depression, locking herself away in her bedroom and not realising the effects of this on her three children; and recent memories of my son’s dad who probably still is in that dark place from which he struggled to come out of when we were together, taking its toll on our relationship. In my mind, I wondered to myself “how long does one remain strong for before that breaking point; and what happens when it happens”. I did not want to wait to find out, so I dived into self-help literature online, found relevant groups on Meetup and Facebook, reached out to friends for advice on that “family/work balance” and how to make sure I remain “sane” for my own and my two children’s sake.

And this is where my inspiration for A.I. in mental health came from.

What if… Young People Were Empowered to Create Tech to Hack Happiness.

As always, I reached out to friends from multiple networks, found top experts in A.I. (sitting in a walking distance from Tabitha, founder of CognitionX helped!) and in mental health, was absolutely fortunate to have been offered to host the hack at GSMA, chose the date I later regretted about (this is the first and last time I will be running a teen hack during a busy exam time!), found incredible mentors and children who were passionate about mental health and A.I.

I have to admit, having organised half a dozen of teen hackathons by now, this was the first time I really doubted the hackathon would have the results I anticipated. Even on the day of the hackathon I still thought: will teens even want to discuss what could be very deep and personal issues associated with mental health? Will they understand the depth of AI and its potential to change the world? Will they even know how to use current existing technologies and APIs? Would they understand design thinking, or instead dive straight into useless coding without fully comprehending the problem at stake? And when I saw two 9-year olds floating around, I thought to myself, “Okay…no hope in hell!”

My doubts were erased the moment I saw kids in teams reaching for post-it notes, markers and flip chart paper and moments later the entire room was buzzing…so much so that one of the teen participants later wrote to me how overwhelmed she was and how “busy” the room got, and how nonetheless she absolutely enjoyed it!

We were fortunate to have had Pete Trainor, CEO of Nexus.cx, mental health activist and author of Hippo — Human-Focused Digital Book agree to do our Design Thinking workshop. He had a huge task of explaining design thinking processes to a bunch of teens who at that time only knew of “design” as “drawing a logo”. By 2 pm all teams were already doing their paper prototypes and by the end of Day 1 most had started coding their MVPs (minimum viable products).

Because Design Thinking workshop was not enough, we thought it would be a good idea to teach our teenagers how to program Alexa and how to create chatbots. Those who had mid-to-high level skills in coding took part in the Alexa Skills workshop, that was run by Arun Pattni (13), and those who were beginners took part in the Chatbots workshop run by Katie Nyarko (14). Both Arun and Katie are frequent hackathon goers, but this was THE first time both were offered a chance to teach their top skill and they both have excelled at the task most adults struggle with.

Day 1 ended with Gulmira Mamedova doing I Am Enough workshop, as per the Marisa Peer method, which left all teenagers feeling confident for their presentations the next day. I asked Gulmira to run this workshop, because time and time again, having now worked with over 600 teens, I notice what teenagers all lack but desperately need is belief in themselves and their ability to achieve anything they set their minds to, that EVERYTHING is possible and that they are good enough, beautiful enough, smart enough. Just enough. The “I am Enough” workshop, originally developed by Marisa Peer and focused on instilling that confidence and self-esteem — if only this workshop became part of PSHE classes in schools!

Day 2 began with a Mindfulness/Mind Mastery Workshop by Jane H. Tepley. Again, given the focus of the hackathon on mental health, I felt this would be a fantastic opportunity for me to introduce young people to mindfulness, something I feel very passionate about and I believe it should be part of every school’s daily practice.

Straight after lunch, we were joined by Simon Alexander Ong, who I met last summer when I ran our very first tech accelerator for teens. Once again, which does not come as surprise, Simon was rated as THE best speaker by all teenagers — there is something very special about Simon’s ability to keep teens engaged through storytelling. What I personally took away from Simon’s talk is the importance of having a mentor: someone you can talk to about the challenges you face, but most importantly, someone who is able to review your progress and help keep you on track.

We ended our Mental Health A.I. Hackathon on a high note by welcoming Sophia, the most advanced robot, or as she likes to call herself “electronic girl”, on board our judging panel.

“One needs to be inspired in order to inspire others”.

I guess, because it often is my job to inspire young people to embrace technology and entrepreneurship, I often crave inspiration myself. After all, it is what drives my passion and helps me carry on the mission I am so driven by: inspire young people worldwide to change the world around them for the better through technology.

I am incredibly grateful to everyone who helped me make this happen:

  1. All teenagers who came to the hack and have blown everyone’s minds with their incredible enthusiasm
  2. Parents, who believed in my ability to inspire their kids and have championed and supported me ever since
  3. The judges:

4. All sponsors and supporters of the hack: The Mind Charity, GSMA, Educational App Store, Hanson Robotics, CognitionX, Nexus.cx and many more

The prizes won by the groups are as follows:

  • Eunomia (Peter (16), Brendan (16), Zara (13), Noor (13), Caitlin (13), Katerina (13)) presented their idea for an app where young people can discuss mental health problems anonymously at CogX to 1,600 AI specialists
  • Four teams went through to the smart.london hackathon with the opportunity to win £5,000 and a trip to Miami to compete in USA.
  • Aviva gave two prizes, a tour of the Digital Garage for Team Backchat and one week’s work experience for LiveSmart.
  • Team Ani have an opportunity to work with MIND to develop their dedicated app for young women to challenge insecurity around body image and maintain a positive view of life.
  • Teams Peace of Mind and LiveSmart also won the opportunity to learn Android Studio sponsored by Jose Nieto and to receive ongoing mentoring to bring their ideas to life.

And this is what we built:

  1. Eunomia — help people speak out about mental health and seek help anonymously
  2. Dooze — Interactive phone based app that provides solutions to better sleep
  3. ANI — helping teenage girls battle depression
  4. CitySleepers — helping the city to sleep
  5. Peace of Mind — VR/AI mindfulness app
  6. BuddyBot — helps you find friends in local communities
  7. BackChat — AI coaching app to help those fearing public speaking
  8. LiveSmart — the smart way to stress free life

A very special thank you to Marte Borhaug, Mischa Dohler, Jose Nieto, Sarah Sanders, Alastair Falk, Chana Canzen, Lucy Saunders, Arun, Katie and Peter, without whom this hackathon would not have happened.

Inspired,

Elena Sinel

Founder, Acorn Aspirations.


Originally published at Acorn Aspirations.

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