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New apps give stressed or scared young people a reason to reach for their phones

Young people face serious threats to their safety and well-being. Crime data shows that 16 to 24-year-olds are more likely to be victims of violent crime than any other age group. In a recent YouGov poll, 63% of women and 26% of men aged 18 to 24 said they had been sexually harassed on a night out. What’s more, suicide is now the leading cause of death among people aged 15 to 29 – and suicide rates among women in their early 20s are at a 20-year high.

The vast majority (96%) of 16 to 24-year-olds in the UK now own a smart phone. While social media use is linked to depression and anxiety in young people, and self-harm in teenage girls, some mobile apps have been developed to provide crucial back-up to traditional support services.

There are several apps which can offer young people affordable and accessible ways to take control of their safety and well-being. For example, Circle of 6 was originally developed to prevent sexual violence on college campuses, but it is suitable to use anywhere.

Users can request an “interruption” from a friend if they feel uncomfortable on a date. Or, if they need help to get home safely, they can alert their “friend group” and a message is sent out, along with their GPS coordinates.

Similarly, Watch Over Me allows a friend to monitor you when you’re walking alone or meeting someone. If you don’t tap “I’m safe” within the agreed time, your chosen contacts are sent your location and any photos, videos or notes you have uploaded. Shaking your phone activates an alarm, switches on video recording and sends an alert to emergency contacts.

For young people who are struggling or feeling low, Elefriends is a supportive online community, managed by trained Mind moderators. It provides anonymous online support for those who do not seek help due to the stigma around mental health. Then there’s Stay Alive – a suicide prevention app for people experiencing suicidal thoughts, or who are concerned for a friend. It helps users create a safety plan, identify warning signs and offers advice and coping tools.

Student struggles

Many young people are also university students: approximately one in three 18-year-olds in England, Wales and Northern Ireland – and one in four in Scotland – were placed on degree programmes in 2017. University presents further challenges to personal safety and well-being. More than half (54%) of students aged 18 to 24 report having experienced sexual harassment. There have also been accounts of universities failing to support those who report their experiences.

Students are also twice as likely to be mugged than the general population. This suggests that universities need to improve safety advice and support for students – especially since many of them leave their hometowns for an unfamiliar city when they begin their studies.

What’s more, up to 70% of students experience homesickness and, on top of that, high tuition fees and living costs contribute to mental health problems. Universities have seen a 50% rise in students seeking counselling in the past five years, placing these services under pressure. Given that 75% of mental health problems emerge before the age of 25, there’s a clear need for early intervention and preventative solutions.

Setting the standard

To meet the growing demand for support services, universities across the UK are being encouraged to sign up to ProtectED – a national accreditation scheme, developed at the University of Salford. The code of practice sets out standards to ensure that universities provide students with enough support to ensure their safety, security and well-being.

Accredited universities must promote – and ideally provide – free personal safety apps for students. For instance, Northumbria University use SafeZone – an app which allows students to request emergency assistance or first aid from university security around the clock. For this to be effective, universities need trained support staff in place to respond to students.

ProtectED also requires universities to provide out-of-hours student mental health support. For example, UWE has invested in Kooth Student to give students access to online counselling. Some may prefer face-to-face support, but this service allows students to speak to trained counsellors during evenings and weekends, or while on a waiting list for face-to-face counselling.

ProtectED universities must also give students accessible ways to report sexual assault. The Callisto app lets you do this anonymously – and alerts you if someone has previously named the same perpetrator. Encouraging students to report such crimes is a start, but accredited universities will also have clear procedures and support services for dealing with, and deterring, sexual violence.

While it is vital for universities and governments to maintain front-line services, apps can help raise awareness of the risks young people regularly face – and provide valuable skills and resources to fall back on if needed. For young people living away from home, coping with academic and financial pressures and simply negotiating adult life, mobile apps can turn your phone into a personal safety and well-being device.

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