In the coming weeks, the House of Commons Education and Health Select Committees will be hearing oral evidence on their inquiry into children and young people’s mental health and the role of education. Members of the Manchester Institute of Education have written three blogs expanding on some of the key issues in their submission and drawing on their research into education and mental health. Here, Dr Terry Hanley looks at whether technological advances are helping or hindering young people’s mental health.
- Young people who access online counselling find it to be a rich and helpful environment
- Online services are often pitted against more traditional face-to-face ones, such as school-based counselling
- Constructive conversations can emerge in online forums that provide young people both information and emotional support
- Avoiding engagement with Internet based resources would be naïve, short-sighted and ignore the many helpful developments that are going on in the virtual realm
- Policy makers need to develop a clear strategy for investing in research and practice around online mental health practices
Barely a day goes by without a news report citing the detrimental effects of the Internet and social media upon children and young people. Cyberbullying, managing and monitoring ‘screen time’, access to pornography and sexualized content, and material aimed at radicalising individuals and promoting extremist views are just some of the issues that regularly make provocative and enticing headlines. Young people are now ‘digital natives’, notably people who have never lived in a world without the Internet, and given the problems that regularly come to the fore, this great resource can be viewed as coming at a significant price. But, is it all bad?
Douglas Adams reminded us that ‘technology is stuff that doesn’t work yet’. In considering where the Internet and social media meet with the lives of young people, we have to hold onto the sentiment behind this statement. Predominantly, people view this statement as referring to the physical architecture of ‘technology’ (e.g. a circuit board not working effectively) but it can also be argued that it refers to the way in which people use and engage with technology (e.g. people are not able to harness what technology can offer effectively). It is this latter perspective that has interested researchers linked to the counselling psychology doctorate at the University. Thus, the technology itself is working fine, but those who are using it are not fully up to speed in its usage yet.
Keeping up with changing trends in technology is no mean feat. However, for over a decade, researchers in the Manchester Institute of Education have been exploring the way that mental health services have been working as a positive force and providing support to children and young people. The projects have included explorations into the worlds of online counselling, the use of mental health forums by young people and the developing area of blended services that combine online and face-to-face support.
Historically, people have been concerned that online therapy is a poor cousin to its face-to-face counterpart, losing out on many of the complex dynamics that occur within communication. Although, it is acknowledged that this medium will not work for everyone, research has reflected that young people who access online counselling find it to be a rich and helpful environment. When discussing this with young people, they reflect that the relationships they form with counsellors are strong and that the confidential nature inherent in some services means that they are able to discuss issues that they might not ordinarily be able to discuss face-to-face. Such sentiments are also reflected within the goals that young people have when they approach counselling services, and are evident in the broader literature in this area. One specific challenge that has become evident in researching this area is that trying to capture systematic outcome data about the effectiveness of online counselling is not straightforward (see paper info here). The complex nature inherent in online communication (e.g. are people who they say they are or experimenting with different personas) can make this difficult to undertake in a meaningful way.
Online forums prove controversial due to the freedom that young people have to explore issues in an un-moderated setting. In the past year I, alongside colleagues, have examined several years of forum posts on a website hosted, and lightly moderated, by an organisation providing online counselling for 11 to 25 year olds. These postings reflect a wide variety of topics (including mental and physical health, issues related to interpersonal relationships, school and sexuality) and demonstrate that constructive conversations can emerge in these settings that provide both information and emotional support. Further, it is also evident that the benefits in participating in such conversations are not solely one way in nature, with those offering support also appearing to benefit from doing so.
Online services are often pitted against more traditional face-to-face ones, such as school-based counselling. However, in addition to potentially offering support to different children and young people, online services can also work in conjunction with face-to-face services. For instance, online services can help to provide a continuity of support over holiday periods – after all, although schools may close for holidays, the difficulties that young people encounter do not go on holiday too.
A recent review of the literature (currently in preparation) reflects that there is much opportunity for working in this way and providing tailored support to the individual needs/wants of young people. However, practical concerns, such as maintaining safe protocols that account for risk management and developing technology that is fit for purpose, all need to be considered before leaping into such work (paper info here).
Without doubt, the Internet and social media can be viewed as problematic. I hope however, that this brief reflection also highlights how these new technologies can play an important role in supporting the emotional wellbeing of children and young people as they navigate the murky developmental waters associated with growing up.
Further, as the focus upon offering emotional support in school settings becomes commonplace (e.g. the Department of Health’s Future in Mind report) and the distribution of finances in education becomes increasingly complex, it is important that policy makers do not shy away from technological developments in this area. In fact I would argue that avoiding engagement with Internet based resources would be naïve, short-sighted and ignore the many helpful developments that are going on in the virtual realm. Thus, as the bridge between education and mental health is being deliberated by the parliamentary select committee, I would hope such considerations result in a clear strategy for investing in research and practice (staffed by skilled professionals) around online mental health practices.