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Victoria is founder and director of mHabitat — an NHS hosted organisation which supports people-centred digital innovation in health and care. She is a qualified social worker and coach with Masters degrees in Women’s Studies, Social Work and a Diploma in Public Sector Relations. You can find her blog here and on Twitter @VictoriaBetton

How can we better support teens with mental health difficulties to develop resilience in their use of digital technologies? And what do health and care practitioners need to know? Commissioned to inform the Widening Digital Participation Programme, we sought to better understand how teens with mental health difficulties are navigating their connected lives. The report comprises a review of evidence alongside insights from seven interviews with teens and two focus groups. It also includes insights from mHabitat’s participatory work with young people.

As social media platforms become increasingly ubiquitous, it is crucial that practitioners are equipped to help teens traverse the associated ups and downs. Despite having some idea of what issues we may encounter, there were a several topics that were unexpected. The following three were particularly striking:

The power of distraction

“[The internet is] a way of forgetting that we actually have this problem by doing something that we’re not only good at, but we enjoy. And then, they [parents] have a go at us […] it’s just our way of coping with something …”

The extent to which our interviewees talked about how they purposefully use the internet to distract themselves from troubling emotions was notable. Playing games, scrolling through Instagram, or browsing YouTube were all coping mechanisms utilised by young people to manage distress. Some were resentful that adults not only didn’t understand, but actively tried to remove this coping mechanism. Others recognised that sometimes a helpful distraction tipped over into wasting time, which could make things worse.

For practitioners, thinking about digital technologies as a tool to cope with distressing emotions is a useful way to assist teens in managing their mental health.

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Relatable and aspirational

“Having access to people that aren’t necessarily an authoritative figure …  [makes it feel like] it’s not someone official telling you what to do. It gives you the access to … hear other people’s stories that are real people. Whether it’s someone that has been suicidal and they talk about how they coped … or whether it’s someone who has an eating disorder… [or] a hang-up about their body and there are people out there to help and advocate the fact that there are things out there that can help…”

While it was unsurprising that Snapchat and Instagram were the most popular platforms, we were fascinated by how often young people talked about YouTubers in relation to their mental health. Vloggers appear to combine being relatable and aspirational in ways which many of the teens we spoke with found irresistible. Having an insight into a vlogger’s life and its ups and downs was powerful. The notion of relatability came up repeatedly.

It is important for practitioners to be aware that teens are as or more likely to access information via YouTube as they are from professionally generated information on sites such as NHS Choices.

Digital naivety rather than digital natives

“Resources aren’t readily available for mental health … You go on the internet and it’s all just social media …”

Whilst many of the teens we spoke with were savvy online, we were struck by the extent to which some were naive when it comes to accessing information about mental health. For a few young people, the idea of searching for mental health information online had not occurred to them. Others would only do so when directed to do so by a practitioner. The notion of digital natives has been largely discredited and it is equally important that practitioners do not fall into the trap of regarding themselves as digital immigrants.

As with any other aspect of continuing professional development, practitioners need to be up to speed with digital technologies to help and guide young people through the positive and negative aspects.

In researching this report, we had some fantastic conversations with young people. We are grateful for their candidness about how the internet affects mental health, and how they use it to manage their symptoms. There is much more to be understood in order to enable parents, carers and practitioners to help young people traverse this tricky terrain.

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