Following a Number 10 Policy Unit discussion on social media and mental health in March 22, Digital Youth share their recommendations for improving online mental health:
Recommendations for Improving Online Mental Health from the MRC ‘Digital Youth’ Consortium
Coordinated activity: Create a new standing forum (a Digital Products Regulatory Agency) to improve communication and coordination among stakeholders by bringing together key players across industry, academia, education, clinical practice and policy (with strong input from young people) to coordinate, evaluate and integrate evidence for new initiatives that promote young people’s mental health online. This would be a similar body to the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA).
Data transparency: Build an ethical framework with a regulator enforced code of practice to ensure that social media companies and digital app providers make data about their products openly available to researchers.
User power: Increase users’ control of algorithms which serve them content, including advertising; make content authenticity verifiable, including the high-risk online services.
Duty of care: Include a statutory duty of care in the Online Safety Bill (OSB) that ensures platform algorithm transparency, accountability for harms, the prevention of ‘risky-by-design’ provision of ever-more extreme content and child-friendly remedies as needed.
Incentivise positive content: Create financial/legal incentives for companies to build platforms that prioritise young people’s mental health over their attention capture, including ensuring the effectiveness of ‘just-in-time’ provision of links and recommendations to relevant youth mental health services and safeguards for vulnerable groups using digital platforms.
Well-being by innovative design: Co-develop novel tools for social media. For example, ‘I’m distressed by this’ buttons that detect distress (and link this to content and patterns of digital engagement) and direct young people to evidence-based resources (e.g., self-help and mentoring).
Transparency about harms: Oblige social media companies to engage with the risks associated with the content they enable and to declare elements known to negatively impact young people’s mental health to inform the design of online safety education.
Age appropriateness: Based on research evidence reconsider the age at which young people should be allowed access to social media and/or require companies to tailor their services to young users in ways appropriate to their age.
Building the evidence base: Build on existing resources and scientific expertise, sponsor the development of research to support school-based interventions that promote resilience and coping skills to negotiate interactions in the digital world.
Improve training and education: Train education professionals to work with parents and communities to collectively support young people’s engagement with the digital world. Create whole school-community online-safety strategies including national curriculum provision using co-designed materials, funded centrally or by an industry levy.
Health service providers
Reform commissioning: To develop a new coordinated and evidence-based model for identifying and commissioning effective digital interventions that avoid wasteful purchases of ineffective solutions in a time sensitive way that keeps pace with the fast-moving nature of innovation. This should take the form of a Digital What Works Centre to co-ordinate scientific efforts to ensures that in this rapidly changing field children have the immediate benefit of best evidence-based help.
Co-development as central: To guarantee that co-creation with services and service users is a central principle of intervention innovation following established principles and models.
Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise sectors
A VCSE coordinating body: To task the Children’s Commissioner’s with convening a body of relevant CYP VCSE and charge them with the surveillance of children’s digital experience and the responsibility of holding industry and government departments to account.
A Youth Advisory Board: In concert to create a youth advisory board with a role in the design, implementation and monitoring of industry, government or VCSE initiatives and act as a permanent advisory body on this issue with rotating youth experts working as a consultative body very much like a What Works Centre.
Training and service development
A standard cross-disciplinary approach: Ensure training for youth facing mental health, social care and education professionals on the risks and opportunities for young people of digital technologies. To ensure that questions around the use of technology should be a core part of assessments of problems and formulations. Training should be given routinely on recent trends and be informed by young people’s own concerns.
Clinical provision: Social media support should be encouraged within discussions by mental health and other professionals during meetings with young people.
To create a priority fund for digital research: There are numerous research topics in basic and social science in urgent need of funding including:
• longitudinal research studies with children and young people at different developmental stages including harmful outcomes as well as potential benefits
• determining the effects of online learning on cognitive development.
• focus on children and young people vulnerable for mental health problems such as those from marginalised groups (gender and sexual minorities, special needs, existing mental health problems) and socially disadvantaged backgrounds.