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Teen Mental Health in a Digital World – LDF19

Teen Mental Health: What do we need to understand about young people’s online lives in a digital age?

One of the highlights of the Leeds Digital Festival was the Teen Mental Health event, which dealt with the challenges young people face from an increasingly online world.

Living in a digital age has its benefits, with the entirety of the world’s information practically at our fingertips. However, it still has its drawbacks, particularly for parents and anyone working with young people. Children can be especially vulnerable to disturbing or offensive material, and on the internet it can seem like there’s nothing stopping them from stumbling across it.

This is particularly pertinent when it comes to mental health. Young people are generally more susceptible to illnesses like depression and anxiety, and there is a worry that this can be exacerbated by social media and other aspects of online life.

To help people understand more about this complicated topic, the event ‘Teen Mental Health: What do we need to understand about young people’s online lives in a digital age?’ was held at the Leeds Digital Festival. Run by mHabitat, on behalf of NHS Leeds Clinical Commissioning Groups and Leeds City Council, the event was a fascinating look into the world of young people living in the internet age.

Introductory speakers

The event kicked off with Victoria Betton, founder and director of mHabitat, summing up the theme of the afternoon: “We see a lot of hyperbole in the press; it’s either ‘digital’s going to save the world’, or ‘digital’s going to destroy the world’. The actual truth is a lot more nuanced.”

She was followed by Tom Riordan, Chief Executive of Leeds City Council.  While the Council has been invested in the entire Leeds Digital Festival, this event in particular stood out to Tom because of the effort the City has put into helping children over the last few years. In fact, the Council has gone from being one of the worst for children and young people to one of the best, in a surprisingly short period of time.

Tom pointed out that Leeds was one of the first cities to implement a strategy for dealing with children’s mental health, and has recently made headlines for being the only city in the UK to see a reduction in child obesity.

This has all been part of the Council’s conscious goal to “put children’s voices at the heart of what we do”. Tom added: “Our hope is that in a few years, we’ll be one of the leading cities for children’s mental health.” This event was therefore something the Council was proud to support.

Tom Riordan

Leeds Playhouse Youth Theatre

The first of the main panels was a trio of monologues from three members of Leeds Playhouse Youth Theatre. Introduced by their director Gem Woffinden, the group talked about their own experiences of mental health and how it has intersected with being online in some way.

For example, Johnny – one of the theatre members – talked about his experiences auditioning for drama schools; a process that was exhausting and demoralising, leaving him with an acute feeling of rejection. At his lowest, one of his friends sent him a playlist on Spotify, and this small act across the internet helped him immensely; in his own words: “It helped me take my first step to recovery.”

Another member, May, talked about her experience working part-time as a carer and feeling overwhelmed. She was convinced she was bad at her job, and therefore a bad person. It was only through going online and exploring forums for carers that she was able to see that plenty of people felt the same way, making her realise she was actually a great carer.

The overall message was that while the internet is often blamed for causing mental health problems in young people, they had actually found it a useful tool for recovery. One of them summed it up: “I believe if we, as young people, are educated to use the web, then it can be a great help.”

Professor Sonia Livingstone

The next speaker was Professor Sonia Livingstone from the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She was able to show how the issue of teen mental health is often framed as a crisis by newspapers, but things are far from as bad as they seem.

For example, she highlighted how 18 percent of 8-11-year-olds report having seen something upsetting online, as do 31 percent of 12-15-year-olds.  While this is obviously not perfect, it is key to note that these figures have remained roughly the same for around the last decade. The main real change has been in children accidentally spending money over the internet, which grew from 9 per cent in 2017 to 17 per cent in 2018.

Similarly, a rise in loneliness has been observed in young people from 2007 onwards, which has been linked to the release of the iPhone. However, Professor Livingstone pointed out that this also coincides with the financial crisis and the implementation of austerity, which could well have led to uncertain futures and increased parental pressure; while it’s easy to blame tech, the truth is often much more complicated.

If she had one piece of advice to give to worried parents, Professor Livingstone would say this: “Ask the kids about their online life.” She said that an open and honest environment would make children much more willing to open up if they find something upsetting.

Full house at The Carriageworks

Dr Richard Graham

This was followed by a talk from Dr Richard Graham, consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist and the clinical lead for good thinking at London’s Digital Mental Wellbeing Service. He explained some of the hazards on social media for people who already have mental health issues, and gave some insight into why disturbing content might be posted online in the first place.

The first example he used was of a patient of his, who he referred to simply as “Adam”, who had developed suicidal thoughts. He had searched for methods of taking one’s own life on Wikipedia, finding an image of a particular method which stuck in his head and became ingrained. This intensified his suicidal urges.

Dr Graham also looked into the groups that form on platforms such as Instagram that encourage users to commit self-harm or persuade them they are right to continue with behaviour caused by an eating disorder.  However, he noted that the main reason people post content related to self-harm is that they are looking for some kind of help.

Dr Simon D’Alfonso

After another performance from the Leeds Playhouse Youth Theatre, the third speaker was revealed: Dr Simon D’Alfonso, research fellow at the School of Computing and Information Systems at the University of Melbourne. His talk was on the ethics of designing a social network, based on his own work in this area.

He focused on using social networks to promote wellbeing, rather than as commercial tools designed to keep user attention for as long as possible. As a positive example, he highlighted the Moderated Online Social Therapy (MOST) platform, which integrates social media with “psychoeducational therapy units” and forums to help people find solutions to personal issues.

Part of MOST’s philosophy is encouraging and facilitating offline activity, away from the site. This is a contrast to many social networks, which strive to keep users on them as much as possible. By embracing this new philosophy, it is hoped that MOST will prove to be a platform that helps users improve their mental wellbeing.

Dr Jane Mischenko and MindMate

Finally, a panel was held by MindMate and Dr Jane Mischenko, lead commissioner for children’s services in Leeds, who introduced the panel by stating that MindMate aims to “have young people at the centre of what we do, both in terms of our services and the digital world.”. Three of MindMate’s ambassadors – Megan, Freyja and Rachael – then spoke about their experiences.

The ambassadors eloquently spoke on subjects from the harmful effect of fake news and Donald Trump’s tweets on impressionable young people, to their own experience with mental illness and bullying. Rachael talked about being bullied via a Facebook group making fun of her weight, for example, which then led to her developing an eating disorder.

This was followed by a discussion in which Rachael and Freyja, plus Dr Graham, Dr D’Alfonso and Professor Livingstone took part.  While many questions were asked by the audience, the hot-button topic was screen time, particularly when it came to parents using their phones too much rather than focusing on their children.

While the conversation went back and forth, most participants agreed that the screens weren’t as much an issue as the context in which they were being used, pointing out that it would be just as bad if parents were ignoring children because they were engrossed in a book or newspaper. Dr Graham added: “If you try to curtail screen time without nuance or understanding, the conflict it causes can be more traumatic.”

Overall, the event was a tremendous success. Speaking to Victoria Betton after it was over, she said: “The thing that was really important to me was that we got some international speakers, so we got everything from a global perspective right down to a really strong local perspective. It was also great that we were able to get young people’s voices heard.”