In turn, three leading pediatric institutions have declared a national emergency in child and adolescent health. And a startup called BeMe—built by minds from Harvard, Facebook, and the Trevor Project—hopes to help.
BeMe is a mobile platform for teens that looks a lot like TikTok. Its stated goal is to help make teens happier and mentally healthier. But with $7 million in seed funding—alongside paid partnerships with multiple, top 10 commercial healthcare and Medicaid plans—BeMe is anything but your bootstrapped nonprofit. Instead, BeMe is a for-profit company, specifically courting the insurance industry to modernize ongoing and remote psychological treatment. To do so, BeMe will use smartphones, influencers, and all the social media tricks that get people checking an app multiple times a day.
If you’re skeptical of an app turning its hat backwards alongside insurance companies to solve the teen mental health crisis, you aren’t the only one. However, BeMe believes its unique strength is specifically in its deep relationships with the healthcare industry. It even plans to get its initial batch of users from insurance plan referrals rather than viral marketing.
“We want to go after all teens, from the emotionally curious to psychiatrically challenged, those with Medicaid funding to commercial [insurance] funding to everything in between,” says CEO Nicki Tessler, a psychologist by training who has held several executive roles in healthcare. “We wanted to democratize [mental healthcare] access to teens.”
BeMe doesn’t launch until 2022. And while I was unable to try the app myself, I was given a tour by the company’s chief product and technical officer, Mandeep Dhillon. In his last role, Dhillon was a product manager overseeing integrity at Facebook. He, like Tessler, felt he was called to work on BeMe. They both have teenagers at home.
Next, users arrive on a homepage, which features the Daily Three. These are basically three tasks—pieces of content to read, or exercises like brief meditations and journaling, that someone can do. “No kid wakes up thinking, ‘how do I work on mental health?'” says Dhillon. “So we try to use gaming and quests to help them.”
Many of these practices can have an immediate impact on mental health. Like most elements in the app, these tasks aren’t random, but informed by best practices of clinical psychology. (MIT researchers have proven that short, app-based tasks can work to boost mental health.) “Part of what we’re trying to do is take the science we know and intentionally curate and create content behind it,” explains Neha Chaudhary, a practicing child psychiatrist, faculty member at Harvard Medical School, and BeMe’s Chief Medical Officer. “We’re trying to pull from what we know works in clinical practice, and deliver those interventions in the form of an activity that encourages you to walk through a mindfulness practice or deep breathing exercise when you feel intense emotions.”
On this same page is a mood slider. It asks how happy you are today, and you drag a smiley face left to right depending on your response. BeMe plans to log this data over time, allowing users to see correlations in their behavior (perhaps Mondays always put you in a bad mood, or journaling always alleviates stress). Over the long term, data from this simple mood slider will allow BeMe to validate its own platform, testing if its own methods actually work.
And of course, BeMe wouldn’t be a modern social media startup without a solid, unabashed clone of the TikTok feed. Yet unlike TikTok, which allows anyone to post just about anything, BeMe’s feed will also be anchored in proven content. Popular influencers may come over from platforms like TikTok, but on BeMe, they can only post company-vetted mental health messaging (a fact-checking plan companies like Snapchat have deployed in the past)—and BeMe users can’t post anything public of their own. These points are important, given that unqualified mental health influencers on TikTok appear to have created a mass hysteria in Gen Z, during which young people are experiencing specific, never-before-seen tics that stem from social suggestion.
Even BeMe’s lighter content will only be allowed on the service if there’s a tangible mental health benefit. “If we show you puppy videos, there’s a science behind how and why puppy videos and interactions with animals can scientifically boost your mood,” says Chaudhary.
For teens who want more immediate and personal help, the app has a coaching section, which is basically a text message service that connects a teen to a trained adult who can help talk them through a tense moment, or point them to resources that can help. Balancing manpower for this service does seem like it could be tricky for BeMe, but Chaudhary points out that these coaches aren’t psychologists, which should make them easier to source.
This coaching isn’t a therapy session, nor is it a formal telehealth appointment. “Coaching is something you can use for five minutes, or for 15 minutes. You might use it asynchronously, or synchronously,” says Tessler, noting that the point is to give teens support with the sort of instant gratification we’ve all come to expect in the digital era. “Teens are not going to [wait until] 4 p.m. next week for support.”
As for the bigger problems, the topics that need ongoing therapy, BeMe will have built-in referral services to get teens connected to professional help—which will presumably be covered, to some extent, by their insurance.
What could go wrong?
This specific model of lightweight mental health tuneups, paired with clinical referrals, is why 10 (still unnamed) insurance companies have expressed interest in BeMe. You can think of BeMe much like a gym subsidy. Insurers will reimburse you to keep your body in better shape because that can keep you out of the ER or off some medications, saving insurers money in the long run. BeMe makes money by charging insurance companies to offer its tool to insurance holders.
That said, the exact business model behind BeMe is still in flux. Will BeMe always prioritize teen health over revenue, even if the company hits a rough patch? And just how much will your personal insurance plan coverage pay for BeMe? Could a few of your teen’s coaching messages suddenly count against your own yearly spending limits? And something you tap on or disclose in the app could never count as a pre-existing condition later . . . right?
These questions sound paranoid. But society has been disenfranchised by both insurers and social media companies. And as I put it to Dhillon, when you mix these two impossibly powerful, dangerously opaque industries, you’re basically playing with plutonium—an intoxicatingly potent substance, which could be harnessed for either great harm or great virtue.
“We are playing with the plutonium,” Dhillon agrees, “because it’s there.”