#parent | #kids | South Bay students’ app aims to help their peers with stress – The Mercury News

According to the American Psychological Association, teens today are feeling about as much stress as adults. In middle school, new academic and social pressures, combined with the stresses of puberty, can lead to unprecedented levels of anxiety. Four Saratoga sixth-graders have developed Calmzilla, an app that aims to help their classmates cope with their newfound stress.

Danika Talagala, Ananya Pradhan, Sofia Shah and Arushi Sahasi—also known as the DASA team—created Calmzilla with the help of Danika’s mom, Nisha, who works in artificial intelligence. The app was created specifically for middle school students and their parents to help track and manage their stresses.

When they entered middle school at The Harker School in San Jose, the girls began to recognize how their increased stress levels affected them personally.

“For me, if I’m stressed, I normally do not function very well. I get very grumpy,” Danika said. “Also, if you have a lot of stress and it builds up, it can really have a long-term effect.”

They used this firsthand knowledge to create their app. When students log on to the app, they answer a series of questions about themselves and what they’re involved in at school. They then go to a chat screen with Chai, an AI cartoon dog who asks them questions about their day. Based on their answers, they’re given a numerical score that categorizes their probable stress level, and they’re given a list of stress-relieving games and activities they can do online. Their parents are then sent a report.

“We really wanted to help with a problem that we recognized in our peers and our friends,” Ananya said. “We wanted to make them feel comfortable talking to an app and feel like they wouldn’t be judged when they expressed how they were feeling, which is why we have a puppy avatar to make them feel more comfortable.”

The girls built the app and trained the artificial intelligence using surveys of their classmates. They were able to create numerical scores and highlight keywords and phrases that would help teach the app how to respond to different answers. They also consulted a child psychologist to help them understand how best to handle the topic of mental health.

“At first (AI) is just like a newborn baby; you have to teach it everything,” Sofia said, adding that team DASA analyzed the data and tried to determine which answers indicated stress—like “My day was super sad” or “I didn’t talk to any of my friends.” They then determined what similar answers people could give that would also translate to more stress.

The team entered the app into the Technovation Families AI Challenge, a competition that awards creative artificial intelligence solutions to everyday problems. Calmzilla took home first place in the North American Junior Regional competition.

The app is still in its prototyping phase and is available on Testflight, a service that allows users to beta-test apps before they hit the market. The girls say they’re still working to expand their data and further train the AI to be more accurate and reliable with its responses.

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