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Adolescent mental health and development in the digital world

A multi-stakeholder qualitative study on the risks and benefits of digital technology use

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LSE is delighted to be part of this Medical Research Council (MRC) Engagement Award led by the University of Nottingham with partners at the University of Oxford, University College London, University of Auckland, Kings College London – a collaboration exploring research challenges in adolescence, mental health and the developing mind.

This project will enable multidisciplinary teams, to conduct pilot projects, build partnerships with key stakeholder and facilitate the exchange of knowledge.  Research will address how the digital environment influences brain development and function, mental health and mental health problems, risk behaviours, bullying, loneliness and social isolations and also how digital technologies can be harnessed to promote positive behaviours and mental well-being. 

The LSE team will be involved in a multi-stakeholder qualitative study on the role of digital technologies in adolescents’ mental health. With a focus on ADHD, self-harm and eating disorders, we will explore adolescents’ mental health vulnerabilities and the risks and benefits associated with digital technology use. The project researches the opinions of children and young people, experts, parents and policy-makers. Our aim is to learn from these insights to help policy-makers, educators, and businesses ensure children’s and young people’s rights to digital participation and their protection from online risks. We will use the research to disseminate lessons learned via publications, presentations, and talks and to create resources that support adolescents’ internet safety.

Activities and methods

Scoping literature review

To precede and inform the qualitative research, we will conduct a scoping literature review on adolescent mental health in a digital world. The review will focus on what is known and not known regarding the three target groups – ADHD, self-harm and eating disorders – specifically in relation to digital technologies, whether as source of help or hindrance.

Most recent literature reviews tend to group together all mental health problems or treat just one (e.g. depression) when they relate these to the digital environment. Further, most reviews tend to treat all aspects of the digital environment as one ‘black box’ or to focus on just one aspect (most often, social media). We see potential in examining the different dimensions of both mental health and the digital environment to better understand the specificities of the digital journeys of young people with these mental health difficulties.

Focus groups

We will run focus groups with adolescents with a history of ADHD, self-harm (SH) & eating disorders (ED), their parents and professionals and policy makers with relevant experience. This part of the project will be conducted by a team at our partner institution - Kings College London. The aims of the focus groups are to:

  • Describe the relationship between ADHD, self-harm and eating disorders and engagement with digital technologies. 
  •  Explore the perceived impact of the COVID19 lock down on digital technology engagement in these groups. 
  • Identify perceived risks of digital technologies for people with ADHD, self-harm and eating disorders and whether these are accentuated during the COVID19 lockdown. 
  •  Explore the potential benefits of digital technology for young people with ADHD, self-harm and eating disorders now and in the post-Covid19 world.
  • Find out what young people and other stakeholders think are the most important research questions regarding digital technology use – especially in the light of the COVID19 lockdown.

Expert interviews

To follow up on the focus group discussions, we will conduct individual interviews with selected experts spanning a mix of stakeholders. The purpose will be to:

  • Permit detailed exploration of the issues raised in the focus groups.
  • Deepen the analysis of the distinct experiences of adolescents with the three conditions, testing the similarities and differences among them as revealed by the focus groups.
  • Invite anonymised discussion of particular cases, so as to examine their ‘digital journeys’ to help or harm, and to learn which digital services afford help or harm in general, as they see it.
  • Add to the research recommendations emerging from the literature review, and focus group discussions regarding priorities for further research, and insights into necessary methodological and ethical considerations.
  • Pursue recommendations for improvement in clinical and well-being services, on the one hand, and digital resources and design of platforms, on the other.

Team

Sonia Livingstone DPhil (Oxon), FBA, FBPS, FAcSS, FRSA, OBE is a professor in the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She has published 20 books including “The Class: Living and Learning in the Digital Age” and Parenting for a Digital Future (July 2020). She directs the projects “Children’s Data and Privacy Online,” “Global Kids Online” (with UNICEF) and “Parenting for a Digital Future”, and she is Deputy Director of the UKRI-funded “Nurture Network.” Since founding the 33 country EU Kids Online network, Sonia has advised the UK government, European Commission, European Parliament, Council of Europe, OECD and ITU.

Sonia Livingstone

Mariya Stoilova is a Post-doctoral researcher at the Department of Media and Communications, London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). Her area of expertise is at the intersection of child rights and digital technology with a particular focus on the risks and opportunities of children's digital media use, data and privacy online, digital skills, and pathways to harm and well-being.

Mariya tweets @Mariya_Stoilova

mariya Stoilova

If you have suggestions for theories or theorists we might include in our toolkit, feel free to get in touch: s.livingstone@lse.ac.uk and m.stoilova@lse.ac.uk

Sonia and Mariya blog about their research at:

Funding and partners

The project take places with funding from the Adolescence, Mental Health and Developing Mind programme – a £35m initiative funded by the government’s Strategic Priorities Fund and delivered by the Medical Research Council (MRC) with the Arts and Humanities Research Council and Economic and Social Research Council as part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

The collaborative research is led by Professor Chris Hollis from the School of Medicine and Director of MindTech with Professor Ellen Townsend from the School of Psychology at the University of Nottingham.

Alongside LSE, the research partners are: The Samaritans, XenZone Ltd, Kings College London (Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience), Auckland University New Zealand, University College London, University of Oxford, University of Bath, The McPin Foundation, The Anna Freud Centre (National Schools in Mind Network), Department of Health and Social Care, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), NHS England, Public Health England, NHSX and Local Authorities.

 

There isn’t just one internet experienced in the same way by everyone. We want to understand the online experience of those facing mental health vulnerabilities and to figure out what would help.

Sonia Livingstone