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SoundSmiles app to boost ear health, wellbeing of young people in remote WA

Callan Morse -

An app designed to enhance the hearing and mental health of Aboriginal children in a fun and enjoyable way has received an almost $1.5 million funding boost from Western Australia's Future Health Research and Innovation Fund.

The SoundSmiles app, developed by Monash University researchers in collaboration with Curtin University and Ear Science Institute Australia aims to provide a streamlined, digitalised platform for children and teachers so they are better informed about children's hearing health and mental health, particularly in Indigenous communities.

SoundSmiles app project lead, health technology researcher and Associate Dean (Indigenous) from Monash University's Faculty of Information Technology, Professor Christopher Lawrence, said Aboriginal children experience ear disease and hearing loss at rates at least ten times higher than non-Aboriginal children.

"The impacts of ear disease can drastically change the trajectory of a child's life. Young people who have hearing loss are more likely to experience social and emotional problems," Professor Lawrence, a proud Wadjak/Ballardong Noongar man said.

Researchers and clinicians co-designed the culturally sensitive SoundSmiles app alongside Western Australia-based Aboriginal medical services organisations, Puntukurnu Aboriginal Medical Service and South West Aboriginal Medical Service.

Through the app, primary school-aged children can be guided by their teachers to answer daily questions about their hearing and mental health, with the app providing information and engaging activities for students in relation to their ears and wellbeing.

Along with building young peoples' independence with health-promoting behaviours, the app intends to increase their digital literacy skills.

Professor Lawrence said SoundSmiles capitalises on the increasing use of digital technologies by children in Aboriginal communities.

"The kids enjoy using tablets and, through the SoundSmiles app, they'll learn skills and develop better connections with expert services which impact their ear and mental health positively," Professor Lawrence said.

The SoundSmiles app will feature dashboards for teachers, parents and clinicians, with teachers receiving up-to-date health information about individuals and the whole class whilst being offered whole class strategies based on students' daily responses.

SoundSmiles project co-investigator and mental health interventions expert, Professor Bronwyn Myers said there is genuine desire within remote communities to build connections around mental and ear health.

"We have been inspired by teachers' passion to support their students' wellbeing and the high engagement from diverse sectors for this digital tool," Professor Myers said.

Ear Science Institute Australia CEO, Adjunct Associate Professor Sandra Bellekom, said it is vital for Western Australia to take practical steps given the influence ear health has on mental health in Aboriginal communities.

"We are proud at Ear Science to bring together our strong links with the Pilbara and Southwest community and our links across academia to co-create inventive solutions that will improve quality of life for Indigenous children. Research that has real-life impact is our mission," Associate Professor Bellekom said.

"This unique, cross-disciplinary collaboration of researchers and remote health, education and community workers can make a real difference."

SoundSmiles was awarded funding for Phase 2 of the project as part of the Western Australian government's Innovation Challenge: Child and Youth Mental Health program.

The innovation program grant will enable the SoundSmiles project to further develop and test the app, deliver it within the Pilbara and South-West communities who co-designed it.

It will then be released more broadly across Western Australia.


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