Young people’s mental health and screen time: Are we asking the right questions?

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15 July 2021

By Kadra Abdinasir

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, infants, children, and young people’s access and use of digital devices was a hotly debated topic. Concerns around the impact of screen time on young people’s mental health and wellbeing, development and safety were expressed by politicians, academics, clinicians, and educators amongst many others. However, the pandemic forced a digital pivot which now requires us all to reassess our perspectives. There has also been a crucial voice missing in conversations about screen time and mental health that must be central to this - that of infants, children, and young people.

Our previous review of the literature on young people’s use of social media found that while many studies confirm the risks and harms associated with social media, including addiction and cyberbullying, there is also evidence of a range of benefits, such as the creation of social connections or greater mental health literacy. Our paper called for further research to support young people and their families to navigate the online world.

When we speak to children and young people, we find that their experiences online are nuanced and often vary greatly depending on their age, gender, race, sexuality and whether they have a disability

Over the last year, we have been working with researchers from the NIHR Mental Health Policy Research Unit across UCL and KCL, the Anna Freud Centre, and the McPin Foundation to identify priorities for future research on screen use and young people’s mental health. These priorities have been informed by young people aged 11 to 25, parents, carers and teachers and are outlined in a final preprint paper entitled Priorities for Future Research about Screen Use and Adolescent Mental Health: A Participatory Prioritization Study.

When we speak to children and young people, we find that their experiences online are nuanced and often vary greatly depending on their age, gender, race, sexuality and whether they have a disability. Young people who have mental health problems can also have variable experiences online. Many find support through online communities and resources while some are at greater risk of cyberbullying or access to harmful content. Therefore, it is vital we listen to and centre infants, children, and young people in the development of solutions that seek to protect them online and boost their wellbeing.

This project engaged young people throughout, including research design, data collection and interpretation of findings, to identify the most pertinent research questions. The research was informed by the James Lind Alliance Priority Setting Partnership approach which involves a three-stage consensus-based process of consultation to identify research priorities using both qualitative and quantitative methods.

Young people prioritised questions about online bullying, digital advertising aimed at vulnerable young people, and the links between social media use and specific mental health problems

To guide the study, a steering group was established made up of researchers, charity sector partners, clinicians, parents, and young people. The McPin Foundation’s Young People’s Advisory Group (YPAG) also played a role at each stage of the consultation. A member of the YPAG has written a blog on their views on screen time and young people’s mental health and how they have found being involved in this project.

Centre for Mental Health’s peer researcher, Ibrahim Hirsi, worked with researchers to design and deliver focus groups to young people across the country to gather their perspectives and to prioritise research questions on screen use and young people’s mental health. Focus groups were also run with parents and carers and with teachers.

Here Ibrahim talks about his role and findings from the project:

 

Once this information was synthesised, 26 research questions were deduced, and a public survey was created asking children, young people, and adults to rank these in order of importance. A total of 357 responses were received: 229 children and young people and 128 adults. Through this process, consensus was reached for the prioritisation of four topics for future research:

  1. The impact of exposure to adult content on young people’s mental health and relationships;
  2. The relationship between screen use and the wellbeing of young people from vulnerable groups;
  3. The impact of screen use on brain development; and
  4. The relationship between screen use and sleep.

Young people also prioritised questions about online bullying, digital advertising aimed at vulnerable young people, and the links between social media use and specific mental health problems. Given that this study was also undertaken in the context of the pandemic, young people also highlighted the need to explore research on the impact of constant news updates, online racial bias, and how young people take part in activism online.

We hope the findings from this exercise will enable government and funders to invest in further research to increase our understanding of the links between screen time and young people’s mental health and inform policymaking.

Further information:

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