What part has digital technology got to play in young people’s mental health? By Dr Victoria Betton

A holistic approach should be taken to helping young people with mental health difficulties navigate digital technology and social media. And this approach should recognise the upsides and downsides of having an online presence, says Dr Victoria Betton, managing director and founder of [Leeds-based] mHabitat.

Social media, digital technologies and the internet are variously billed as the root of all societal ills and the silver bullet that will save the NHS. There are plenty of dystopian takes on the negative effects of social media on young people. But how accurate is this picture, and what does it mean for vulnerable teens that have grown up with the internet as part of their daily lives?

In 2017, NHS-hosted mHabitat undertook research into this important and topical subject. Victoria says: “The findings presented a mixed and nuanced picture – vulnerable teens are likely to report the negative effects of social media, such as bullying, they are nevertheless more likely to talk about its positive benefits, such as helping them to feel less lonely and depressed.

“By simply restricting, banning or blaming young people for their social media use, adults can run the risk of removing valuable coping mechanisms. Instead, we should take a step back and consider the indicators of a balanced young person – such as sleep, physical health, social connection, engagement with school, hobbies and interests.”

Matt Hancock, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, has set out a vision for digital, data and technology as an integral part of the NHS’s Ten-Year Plan. But could this emphasis on technology have an unintended consequence of actually compounding the inverse care law – meaning that those that most need help are least likely to get it?

“We should be attuned to differential use of technology as influenced by inequality and the impact of digital exclusion. It is in this way that we will develop digital services that satisfy the core NHS principles and values of equality and fairness, and meet the needs of all young people.

“As part of Leeds Digital Festival’s health and care-themed programme of free events, we’ll be exploring what we need to understand about young people’s online lives in a digital age. We’ll also look to dispel some of the common myths and engage with the nuances and complexities of this sometimes contentious and highly-misunderstood topic.

“Adult voices often drown out those of young people, so alongside a range of experts including international academic heavyweight Professor Sonia Livingstone, we’ve provided plenty of space for young people to have their say. This will, including teen mental health ambassadors and a performance from Leeds Playhouse Youth Theatre.”

The event will take place at Carriageworks Theatre in Leeds on Wednesday, 1st May at 12.30pm. Booking is essential, for more information on this event and the full 100% Digital Leeds schedule, please visit www.wearemhabitat.com/events/ldf19.