Why Digital

To some people, ‘digital’ is a place for self-expression, a playground or a lifeline. For others, it’s unknown, scary or a distraction. For some people, using technology is second nature. For others, it’s a hard slog and for still more something that is almost impossible.

For many people, the digital world and the way young people discuss can be summed up in this video from the BBC series Burnistoun’s Big Night:

 

In this section, you’ll find:

1. Connected societies

Out of 7.2 billion global population, there are:

  • 3.0 billion internet users;
  • 3.6 billion unique mobile users;
  • and 1.7 billion active mobile social accounts.

With 90% of 16-24 year olds in the UK using a smartphone, reports use the phrase “smartphone society”.

The phenomenal rise of the internet and mobile communications is having a huge impact on many areas of modern life – from shopping, socialising and travel to learning, help seeking and participation.

Digital communication technology is now fully integral to young people’s lives. It’s at the heart of contemporary culture:

“Social media plays a crucial role in the lives of networked teens. Although the specific technologies change, they collectively provide teens with a space to hang out and connect with friends.”

“It’s complicated – the social lives of networked teens”. Find out more here.

2. One world

We can’t ignore digital. For many young people, it’s a seamless part of the world we live in. There isn’t a digital world – just a world with online and offline elements. If we live and work with young people, we have a duty to understand, as best we can, the digital dimension of our world. We hope that this toolkit will help you to do just that. We have aimed to provide enough information for those more confident to give it a try.

Most people who ‘get’ the role of digital in mental health aren’t computer experts or ‘whiz’ kids. They have built this understanding through study, practice, or by listening to young people.

3. Youth mental health and digital

Why should those who work with young people take the digital world seriously?

Plugging technology into mental health systems and services is a “no-brainer” for young people, given the degree to which technology is integrated into so many aspects of their lives.

At Aye Mind, our view is that anyone who seeks to support young people’s wellbeing needs to engage with the ‘digital world’. It should be an essential development area, not an optional extra.  We see the case for digital engagement as overwhelming, with the only question being “how to” rather than “whether to”.

Why?

  • It’s no longer possible to support young people’s wellbeing without considering the impact of the internet and social media;
  • There’s also growing evidence of the positive benefits of digital tools in promoting wellbeing;
  • And further, the online risks and downsides don’t go away if youth professionals don’t engage to help young people address these.

So, is it all about sorting out young people’s mental health problems with smartphone apps? Not at all! While recommending and using mental health apps is a part of the response, the landscape is much broader than this.

4. People-first, Technology Second

Digital resources have a significant role to play as part of a wider approach in promoting and supporting young people’s mental health. We don’t see digital approaches replacing the need for face-to-face support but as a complement. The Leeds-based initiative ‘mHabitat’ describes this as a ”people-first, technology second approach to using technology.

To meet the needs of young people, they should be involved as co-designers of innovative solutions. This means taking a coproduction approach to developing technologies for mental health. We have adopted such an approach in the development of all our work – Project 99 and AyeMind (find out more in the Scottish Coproduction Toolkit).

This approach was also at the heart of Innovation Labs: a multi-partner initiative that managed the creation of effective mental health apps and digital tools.

5. Addressing Unmet Needs

One of the most compelling reasons for all who work with young people to embrace innovation in mental health is the scale of the unmet needs. Evidence shows that young people aged 12-25 have the highest rate of mental illness across the lifespan. They also have the worst access to mental health services:

 “A major factor contributing to this poor access is the current design of our mental healthcare system which is manifestly inadequate for the unique developmental and cultural needs of our young people”.

McGorry et al (2013)

Similarly, research shows that support which decreases the duration of teenage mental health problems have a real chance of preventing morbidity in later life. Agencies like Young Minds in the UK highlight the scale and complexity of need for young people. Research, such as the My World Survey, further adds to the understanding of mental health issues – the challenges but also resilience and support factors.

As part of the response to this major need, growing experience around the world shows the significant potential for using online technologies for young people’s mental wellbeing.

We’ll explore this in the following sections of the toolkit but as a “starter-for-ten”, the potential of digital technology for youth mental health includes:

  • Protecting against developing a mental health disorder;
  • Getting help quickly and appropriately using the right channels;
  • Accessing help, advice and interventions during a critical period.

This animated video sets out the potential of digital technologies for mental health:

6. Spot Online Risks and Respond

“Technology and tools help us navigate an increasingly complex world but they will never replace human creativity, empathy and intuition. We have to understand both the potential and the limitations of what digital technology can offer.” 

Shirley Ayres (2015)

There are a wide range of views and experiences among professionals about the benefits and risks of using online technologies to promote youth wellbeing. We believe that planned and skilful use of technologies can bring real benefits. We just need to be aware of, and carefully address, the main risks and obstacles. This includes:

  • Difficulty in finding the relevant information or support;
  • Digital exclusion and literacy challenges for some young people;
  • Finding inaccurate or potentially damaging information;
  • Online bullying or abuse;
  • Privacy and confidentiality concerns of potentially sensitive information;
  • Excessive, obsessive or inappropriate use of technology.

In general, those who work with young people need to address such concerns within their overall approach. Practical steps to consider include:

  • Ensure effective practice in relation to child protection systems and means of responding to concerns relating to bullying or abuse;
  • Engage regularly with young people to understand their experiences – our experience is that young people share invaluable reflections on the benefits and challenges of the online world;
  • Keep up-to-date with news and research about the ever-evolving ‘digital landscape’ in terms of risks and opportunities – for example, be active on social media;
  • Proactively address the diverse needs of young people – they aren’t a homogenous group and issues like digital exclusion and poor literacy need to be tackled;
  • Continually assess the effectiveness of your organisation’s strategy for making resources and information available to young people – are you actually using the channels and methods that young people use? Are you a credible source of information?;
  • Constantly update the skills and knowledge of any relevant workers to use digital resources, taking a digital literacy approach;
  • Regularly review organisational policies, procedures and systems to ensure safe, effective and professional engagement with the online world.

Keep in mind that the risks and negatives of the internet are there for young people, even if agencies choose not to engage online.

The young people we engaged with during Project 99 made a powerful plea to workers and services through their creation of a Manifesto for Mental Health:

Improve the quality of online content: We rely on it!

ayemind-gif4

7. The way ahead

Digital technologies offer the potential of real benefits for young people’s wellbeing and should be pursued as part of a wider programme of support.

There isn’t a ‘digital solution’ for every issue, individual or situation. But there’s a need for careful planning, delivery and evaluation of digital approaches as part of the wider mix of support being offered. This toolkit will help explore many of these aspects so that any digital service responses can minimise the dangers and increase the prospects for safe, effective use with young people.

We encourage you to draw on its information and resources in taking forwards your own approach to digital mental health.

8. References

Please remember that Aye Mind does not offer direct support for mental health issues and is not continuously monitored for messages. If you need an ambulance, call 999. If you or someone around you is in distress or need immediate help, click here to find a list of services you can talk to.

We are social (2015) Digital social mobile worldwideRead online.

Ofcom (2015) UK now a smartphone society. Read online here.

Boyd (2014) It’s Complicated – The Social Lives of Networked Teens. Click here to read.

Young and Well CRC Plugging technology into mental health system is a no brainer. Read more here.

Young and Well CRC Advice on innovative technologies in E-mental health. Read more.

We Are MHabitat (2015) Our digital journey: what we’ve learnt in six steps. Click here to read.

Innovation Labs: Co-production

McGorry et all (2015) Designing youth mental health services for the 21st century: examples from Australia, Ireland and the UK. Read online.

The Lancet (2014) Mental health and wellbeing in children and adolescents. Read online.

AyeMind literature review: Young people and mental health research.

Young and Well CRC: Technology is key to improving mental health system for young people.

West Midlands: Event showcasing the digital revolution in youth mental health.

Shirley Ayres (2015) Digital Innovation and #Ageing Better.

AyeMind: Young people’s manifesto.

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