August 17, 2020

Mental Health in a Digital World

Category: Research
Girl looking at smartphone screen

Technology is an integral part of our everyday lives. For youth, that’s even more true. Most adults now use digital tools to manage calendars, or they’ll look online for a video to learn new skills like how to bake sourdough bread or do car repairs. But youth have been learning from YouTubers for years!

Many people improve their physical health through workout routines and meal plans. How about mental health? There are now many online tools that either help people find support or learn skills to improve their mental wellbeing.

The team at Connected Learning Lab recently published Social Media and Youth Wellbeing: What We Know and Where We Could Go. To create the report, our experts reviewed an interdisciplinary body of research, examined the technology ecosystem, and conducted interviews with various stakeholders to find how technology was being used for wellbeing support and mental health. In doing so, we also saw some opportunities to create more online supports and tools for youth.

Helping Vulnerable Youth

The report noted that some of the most vulnerable youth have the most to gain from online information and support for mental health. Those with lower social and emotional wellbeing are more likely to report going online to seek support and to feel better about themselves, and adolescents with moderate to severe depressive symptoms may be two times more likely than their peers to turn to social media for emotional support.

Young people with symptoms of depression, those who identify as female, and members of the LGBTQ+ communities are more likely than other teens to seek mental health information and support online. Youth who experience vulnerability because of social marginalization potentially have the most to gain from digital connections with supportive peers and professionals.

Tiera Tanksley, a postdoctoral researcher with the Youth Connections for Wellbeing project, found in her research that pages like #Blackgirlsrock and #Blackgirlmagic were regularly cited as positive, race and gender-affirming spaces that provided a sense of joy and pleasure during times of crisis. Her student Danielle said that she’s drawn to joy-centered social media because, “I can’t find anywhere else where you get those affirmations. It’s nice to see yourself represented in images and wording that is not putting you down, but telling you the great things about yourself and other people like you who are doing great things.”

We are hopeful that significant awareness and development efforts can be made in order to target and tailor more online tools and content to support vulnerable subgroups of youth.

Online Friends = Offline Friends

Adults often joke about the “land line” they used when they were young. Clearly, the way that teens communicate and support each other has evolved along with technology. Increasing evidence suggests that online communication may be a critical avenue for peer-to peer support for adolescents.

Most teens and tweens in the United States believe that social media offer a positive source of social support. We found that adolescents’ online and offline friendships mirror one another, and that digital communication supports teens’ relationships by creating opportunities for displays of affection, intimate disclosure, and even helping them connect for offline activities. To go a step further, many studies report positive associations and substantial overlap between adolescents’ online and offline interactions and relationship quality.

It is important for adults to recognize the shift in communication methods for the current generation. Connection is as important as ever, and online interactions offer key avenues for promoting wellbeing for youth.

Seeking Support

The research team found evidence that indicates that young people are actively seeking support for mental health information online and using online tools to elicit socio-emotional support. In fact, the majority of teens and tweens (87 percent) have gone online for mental health information, 64 percent have used a mobile health app, and 39 percent use the online space to seek out others with similar conditions.

The team at PsyberGuide collaborated with Connected Learning Lab to develop a series of Shareable Resources: mental health apps that are useful for tracking thoughts, talking through feelings, and learning to breathe well and meditate. Just as kids turn to YouTube for help learning a skill, they should be encouraged to leverage some of these free tools for mental health as well.

It’s our hope that digital mental health developers and providers will be responsive to significant youth needs and interests and do even more. They can do that by incorporating cognitive behavioral approaches, meeting youth in their digital communities, and working with online organizers and influencers to develop tools and training.

Developing for the Future

Recent years have seen tremendous growth in efforts to leverage digital and networked technologies to support mental health. Despite the potential of these apps, few are tailored to youth, so few adolescents have adopted them. We suggest that diverse youth should be tapped as agents, experts, innovators, and communicators; they could make meaningful contributions to collaborative efforts with mental health professionals and technology developers.

In addition, we need to spread the word about these tools to more youth. Existing social networks, including peers, parents, and educators, are potential avenues for increasing use of these tools.

Given the rising rates of mental health concerns among young people in the United States, we see urgency in focusing research, investment, and public attention on what drives and mitigates mental health problems for youth. We urge parents, clinicians, developers, and others to recognize the unique and diverse needs and assets of youth, to look to social media as a potential amplifier of both risks and benefits, and to actively involve youth in the development of a healthy online ecosystem.

To learn more about the work that Connected Learning Lab is leading to create a better approach to help youth, please visit the page dedicated to Youth Connections for Wellbeing.

You may read the full report online at: “Social Media for Youth and Wellbeing: What We Know and Where We Could Go.”