Student Voice of Mental Health Award Winner Audrey Wang on Using Technology to Foster Empathy and Inclusivity

Audrey Wang is no stranger to the ups and downs of social media. As a teen coder, she knows social media can be an outlet for creativity and social connection, but it is also capable of harming youth mental health. This conflict inspired Audrey to get involved in youth mental health and start searching for ways to make technology work with, rather than against, students. Her website, Affective Cookies, curates a user’s social media feed to filter out hate and negativity, and her work across various mental health organizations has allowed her to advocate for youth. 

The Jed Foundation (JED) is honored to award Audrey this year’s high school Student Voice of Mental Health Award for her advocacy work. The award, which includes a $3,000 scholarship and an invitation to JED’s annual gala in June, recognizes students for their outstanding efforts to raise awareness for mental health and encourage help-seeking behaviors among those in their communities.

We talked with Audrey about her work and the power of social media to change the future of youth mental wellness. 

Q: What does it mean to you to have won this award?

A: I feel like flying over the moon to have won this award from JED, as I have looked up to JED during the steps and missteps in my mental health advocacy journey. When I think back to two years ago when I wanted to become an advocate, I did not know where to start. I decided to create opportunities for myself such as coding a site for mental health or leading my peers to perform diabolo (Chinese yo-yo) to de-stress. I have always kept my eye open for opportunities to work with amazing organizations and I cannot believe I am now a part of Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation, Common Sense, and the Technology and Adolescent Mental Wellness (TAM) Program. Truly, it feels like all the people that have believed in me as well as the people I have helped have won this award together.

Q: You mention that imposter syndrome played a role in your own understanding of mental health. How did your experiences inspire your work?

A: The feeling of imposter syndrome distinctively resonated with me the first time I learned about it during a women in tech panel. I was surprised that over 70% of individuals experience imposter syndrome at some point in their lives, and it made me feel that I am not alone. Before this panel, I had my eyes set on pursuing computer science, but after, I realized I could use my voice and skills in technology to make a splash in other fields. Although imposter syndrome is often associated with negative feelings, like never feeling good enough, it also inspired me to explore psychology on a deeper level. 

Q: Technology is your medium for social change, and that’s clear when looking at your website, Affective Cookies. Tell us more about it.

A: As a coder, I wanted to harness my coding skills for social good. As a mental health advocate, I wanted to take my learning about youth mental health and incorporate that into my project. Affective Cookies is the perfect intersection of my love for computer science and psychology.

Affective Cookies is a platform to combat mental health issues through empathy and inclusivity. The main concept is to encourage future generations to use social media in a healthy manner. So far, there are three main functionalities. The user can reflect and build a sense of belonging with a custom, animated mental health card. They can scroll through their mental health-filtered social media feed, which classifies the content sentimentally (positive, neutral, mental health sensitive, or negative). Behind the scenes, the mental health feed works by taking the user’s feed and entering it into a machine-learning algorithm, which is like the computer’s recipe to learn how to perform a task. Users can also see how their text comes across, by determining the sentiment of the message and determining whether the message could be more inclusive. If the user inputs a positive message, they are awarded cookie points to reinforce prosocial behavior. I am sure the users could get some benefits of less stress and anxiety from Affective Cookies.

Q: What role should technology play in the future of youth mental health?

A: Technology should help, not hinder, youth mental health. Social media started as a creative outlet to share our ideas and stay connected with the world, but it has morphed into a crowded space filled with negativity, addiction, and mental health concerns. Not to mention, the addictive nature of social media has only become more severe in the past decade. Developing smart apps to counter cyber addiction would be a big challenge, but would also be necessary for future youth. If I can wave a magical wand and change one thing about how social media is currently affecting youth mental health, I would definitely change how cyberbullying affects teens. Words matter and can have a lasting imprint on our memories.

Over the past few years, we have seen technology start to make mental health services more equitable, but we still have a long way to go to ensure these technologies are evidence-based practices and accessible to all, regardless of income, location, or other factors. It would be a success if all youth, especially those in underserved regions, can access teletherapy, online counseling, or mental health apps when they need them.

Q: You’ve spoken on panels and served as an ambassador for various organizations. How have these experiences informed your understanding of youth mental health?

A: Being an ambassador for several organizations, I got to hear many stories and struggles regarding youth mental health spanning media, technology, kindness, and bravery. I spoke at the TAM Youth Panel, where I shared my insights on cyberbullying and health with researchers. At Common Sense’s Notes to My Middle School Self, we shared our experiences and advice on starting out with the digital world and how important it is to set healthy boundaries with technology. I learned about many different strategies that researchers, parents, educators, and mental health professionals are all trying to tackle the issue of youth mental health crisis. Not one strategy is a one-size-fits-all youth solution, due to the intricate biopsychosocial states everyone has. Adequate sleep, a well-rounded diet, and physical activity are all friends of optimal mental health. My biggest takeaway is the importance of taking preventive measures. Before youth join social media, it is crucial for them to examine the pros and cons with good guidance.

Q: With everything you do, how do you make time for your own well-being?

A: As a busy high school student, I often have to choose schoolwork over my mental health. Sometimes when I do put my mental health first, I can’t help but feel a still tinge of guilt that I should be more productive. But as someone deeply involved in mental health, I am aware if I am on the verge of burning out or feeling out of control in my own life. In my opinion, making time for self-care is a matter of time prioritization and setting healthy habits.

Before I go to sleep, I do guided meditation such as yoga nidra to help me release the tension I have accumulated from the day before. When I have time, I like to journal and write calligraphy. On the weekends, I often take time to go outside to get sunshine. Whenever I have small wins, I write down a little note and place it in my “cookie jar” so I can pull one of my notes out at my low moments.

Unfortunately in our current society, we revolve around the hustle culture in which it is difficult to slow down. My friend changed my perspective by asking, “How do you keep your cup full? You give so much of yourself to others, how do you make sure Audrey is doing well?” This question lingered in my mind for a week. After hearing an expert explain if you sacrifice yourself to help others, you are inadvertently making the receiver a beneficiary. The metaphor of needing to keep filling up your cup while you can share some with others helped me realize that by making time for my own mental health, I am helping myself help others.

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