Adolescence, digital technology and mental health care

This research is led by Dr Lucy A Biddle

Digital technology can present both opportunities and harms to young people and their mental health. Our research aims to understand the importance of young people’s’ digital technology use to consultations about mental health. 

Technology can be used to deliver therapeutic interventions or to interface with services to provide additional means of building relationships with and supporting service users. Equally, heavy technology use amongst young people has been linked to poor mental health outcomes and may pose specific risks for those already experiencing difficulties such as self-harm, suicidal ideation or eating disorders. There has been some suggestion that such risks could be considered during mental health consultations. 

The project is working with health and social care practitioners and young people, to explore questions around how use of digital technology could benefit young people’s mental health consultations, improve the delivery of care and manage risk. 

Aims

This project aims to: 

  1. Undertake consultation with all key stakeholders to determine how young people’s digital technology use is currently drawn upon, or responded to, during clinical encounters focused on mental health in primary and secondary health care in England; and the perceived relevance of this to addressing patient risk. 
  2. Collect pilot data for two innovative projects exploring opportunities to: i) use information from young people’s digital engagements to enrich consultations; and ii) identify risk and safeguard against harmful technology use. 
  3. Build relationships with digital mental health providers, academic primary health care, methodologists, and international experts in adolescent mental health, so that these may develop our future programme of work. 
  4. Use innovative practice to engage with young people, sustain their interest, and enable them to work with a collaborative research community. 
  5. Establish and sustain a ‘stakeholder hub’ that will prioritise and co-create next steps for research and help improve implementation and dissemination.

Anticipated impacts

This research could potentially improve mental health care for young people, in terms of risk detection, clinical history taking, safeguarding against online harm and improving mutual doctor-patient relationships.  

What we have found so far

We surveyed mental health practitioners in England about their consultations with young people.  

Only around half of the mental health practitioners who took part in the survey said they were routinely asking young people about their use of digital technology. Over 90 per cent said they had no protocol for having that conversation with patients.  

Next steps

From this research we will draft guidelines for mental health practitioners about how to talk with young patients about their online behaviour and use of technology in a way that is safe and acceptable, and how to explore where use may be harmful.  

We will pilot these guidelines in real-life consultations to see how they can be developed and used more widely by mental health practitioners. 

Inclusion

These guidelines will be co-produced with practitioners and young people.