Parents want support. Too often, what they get is advice—on how to get a kid to sleep, or do their chores, or eat a brightly-colored vegetable. Rarely do adults with children get non-judgmental insight on how to manage their own lives and emotions, not to mention the responsibility of caring for another human for the rest of eternity.
Enter Enjo, a new app aimed at supporting parents’ mental well-being that debuted in the Apple App Store today (Dec. 6).
“We believe the transition you make when you become a parent is so big—it’s one of the biggest transitions you make in life,” says Hoa Ly, co-founder of Enjo. “While it can be fascinating in many ways, it can also be lonely, isolating and frustrating at times.”
Enjo promises to offer parents their own personalized support, based on positive psychology research that shows, according to Ly, that “doing mindful reflections on positive things is a clear way for increasing your mental well-being.” First, you spend some time answering a series of questions that will help the app get to know you. You tell Enjo your partner’s name and your kids’ names and ages, and upload photos so it can “see” how you enjoy time spending time with the people you love. The app also asks what you like about your friends, and prompts you to reflect on the things you’re grateful for. (No one else sees your information: it is anonymized even for Enjo’s developers, Ly says, emphasizing that Enjo does not and will not sell your data to any third parties.)
Once you’ve fed Enjo the information it needs, you tune in whenever you’re in need of a boost. You specify both what’s bugging you—whether you’re stressed, worried, sad, guilty, or angry—as well as the underlying cause (“My son refused to get dressed when we were about to leave” is one pre-set option.) Then the chatbot affirms your emotion and offers to let you vent, find out whether what you’re feeling is common, or help you shift your perspective. It also offers a few pieces of advice, including links to studies or your own reflections. (Remember when you said you were grateful for your family’s health?)
It’s clear Enjo wants to help. The question is: Can it?
Where it all came from
Ly, who has a PhD in psychology from Linköping University in Sweden, has been working on apps for mental health for awhile. He did his doctoral dissertation on a smartphone app he developed to help therapists treat depression by giving clients app-based cognitive behavioral therapy homework between sessions.
After finishing his PhD, Ly teamed up with a pair of engineers to build a mental-health app called Shim that would directly target the public, bypassing therapists. The idea was not to treat depression, but to promote well-being using tools from positive psychology and cognitive behavioral therapy. Then they decided to pivot to parents’ well-being specifically, pulling Shim from Apple.
The goal, Ly assures me, is not for Enjo to act as a substitute for a chat with a good friend or a therapy session, but to nudge parents toward making more human connections. ”We think it’s super important that humans talk to other people,” he said. “What Enjo does is to connect and reconnect you with people who are important to you.”
Maybe. I found the advice to be repetitive and not very personalized (I did not upload any photos). When I wanted to vent, I got assurance that it was okay, even healthy, to do so. But what I wanted was perspective—was I crazy or spot-on to be upset about a given problem, and why?
Enjo is very empathetic, in other words, but not so insightful. I logged many moments of “frustration” to Enjo, but received similar words of sympathy regardless of the situation and sometimes, was offered the same study. (In summary: Parents in general have a harder time with negative thoughts and emotions than non-parents.) Another prompt reminded me that most non-parents get eight hours of sleep each night, a factoid that would have sent me over the edge when I had young children and was maxing out at three hours at a time.
It’s possible that I am too far out from the small-kid years for the app; when you’re a new parent, the problems you deal with are more universal. Older kid issues (above age 5-6) are definitively more bespoke. I tried typing one in; Enjo got confused.
I may also be the wrong generation. Millennials use tech more for parenting advice. A recent nationally representative study of 1,002 parents and caregivers of children age 5 and under showed that 49% of parents used mobile parenting apps, and 60% used science-based parenting websites. Right now, the vast majority of apps for parents are aimed at entertaining kids and helping parents to “improve” their kids, via math, reading, music or Fortnite. So maybe Enjo can help some people. I am 100% behind any effort to make the parenting thing easier.
Björn Jeffrey, another Enjo co-founder and the former CEO of Toca Boca, a suite of children’s play apps, says he pushed the company to focus on parents because when he became one, it was way harder and lonelier than he imagined. Also, Silicon Valley tends to ignore the parenting set. “Silicon Valley skews young and San Francisco literally has more dogs than children,” he says. “I think there’s a lack of understanding and empathy for what family life really entails, and subsequently it gets less attention than the opportunities and challenges warrant.”
Soon Enjo will have the best beta tester ever: Ly is about to become a father himself. He’ll find out first-hand how an app’s affirmations and reflections can help parents deal with no sleep, incessant demands, and the tremendous love of little ones.