Placing a cellphone on your tummy and breathing deeply may seem weird to some, but when it is paired with a health app, research assistant Andrea Merino Ortiz finds it very relaxing.
The graduate student of anthropology at the University of Auckland assessed the BellyBio Interactive Breathing app in preparation for a wider research project led by Associate Professor Susanna Trnka on how health apps affect young people's understanding of wellbeing.
BellyBio was Merino Ortiz's favourite of the 15 apps she tried. The 24-year-old sampled general health and fitness apps, those designed to help meditation, mood trackers, panic-attack apps and even period trackers.
Merino Ortiz said some felt "clunky and awkward at first, but later became extremely useful and enjoyable.
"This was the case of [BellyBio] a diaphragmatic breathing exercise app, which made you place your phone on your stomach to help you slow down your breathing and relax.
"As you inhaled and exhaled, it would have the sound of waves that would sync with your breathing, and these later on turned into self-composing instrumental music, which seemed to be orchestrated by your breath.
"In the beginning it felt very weird, but after a few minutes it was a delightful and extremely pleasant experience. I still use this app if I am having trouble getting to sleep. I would never have thought it would be so effective."
The wider research, for which interviewees are being sought, will assess whether health apps create a community of care for the young people who use them, looking at how communication and identity are negotiated online. The effect of using health apps on wellbeing and self-esteem will also be analysed.
Another app Merino Ortiz liked was Moodtrack Diary which, based on user entries, can chart moods and put users in touch with other, anonymous app users.
"I was having a low day, struggling. I wrote, 'I wish people did as I thought they should' or something like that. It paired me with people with similar interests or [who were] feeling frustrated. You can send them a message of encouragement or advice or 'I hear you, I understand'. Then you can receive messages from people as well.
"It was interesting the social relations that arose from that. At one point I received a message asking how I was doing, checking out for me.
"I felt like there was a process of caring, these persons who reached out to me, not only caring enough to reach out, but also to have follow-up the next day and remember I was struggling. I felt like there was a genuine sense of caring."
Health app users aged 16 to 24 who are willing to be interviewed can contact the researchers at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Health apps Andrea liked
BellyBio Interactive Breathing
The app says: "Put the iPhone on your stomach. Breathe deeply. Enjoy ... " The phone and app record sounds of belly-breathing and synchronise this with soothing music.
The app says that it "helps you with your first and most important step: To set a fixed time frame for your meditation". Andrea Merino Ortiz says its soft timer alerts are less distracting than using a watch during meditation.
The app says: "Graph your moods on the fly. Track as little or as often as you want (mood-swings? no problem!), whenever you want (at home, on the go, and even without internet!), and look back to see your moods over weeks, months, and years to learn about yourself and live better!" Merino Ortiz says it anonymously connects users with each other so they can offer messages of support through the app.
One she disliked
3 Minute Mindfulness
The app says "3 Minutes of Mindfulness is all you need to relieve your stress, anxiety and tension". Merino Ortiz says, "It just felt really contrived. I didn't really find the natural movement of my breathing and it just got really irritating."