Should we talk to young people about social media during mental health consultations?

  • 23rd April 2023

Young people find the idea of talking about their online experiences during a mental health consultation acceptable, according to the results of a study published in JMIR Mental Health. Mental health professionals also believe it is important to discuss digital technology use with young people. However, less than half of clinicians surveyed during the study routinely ask about their patients’ online lives.

The study team confirmed that online experiences can affect young people’s mental health. There was also evidence that females were more likely to report having a negative experience on social media. This means they were also more likely to see social media as harmful and less likely to label it as helpful.

Digital technology is important for young people, especially as most of them have access to devices and content online. All study participants acknowledged that digital technology was ubiquitous. They also accepted that using it can impact mental health and be associated with negative effects such as increased anxiety and loneliness, social isolation and exposure to cyberbullying.

Researchers wanted to understand what young people and clinicians thought about the interaction between digital technology and mental health. They wanted to understand how digital technology could support mental health consultations and the barriers standing in the way of national guidance on discussions around digital technology being implemented into mental health assessments.

To do this, the study team asked mental health professionals and young people to complete an online survey. They found that over a third of the young people they surveyed had never been asked about their digital technology use while receiving care for their mental health. This meant that potentially valuable information about relevant negative online experiences wasn’t being discussed during consultations.

Researchers found that a lack of time, knowledge and expertise prevented mental health professionals from discussing digital technology use during consultations. Most clinicians reported an interest in learning more about the subject, but few had been provided with any specific training or guidance.

Clinicians were open to viewing mental health data from apps or social media to help with consultations. Young people appeared generally comfortable with the idea of sharing such data with health professionals. However, when presented with a binary choice a majority reported not wanting to do so within consultations.

Dr Lucy Biddle, Self-harm Matters HIT co-director, Associate Professor in Qualitative Mental Health Research at the University of Bristol and principal investigator said:

“To our knowledge this is the first study to explore the frequency of discussions about digital technology within mental health consultations from the perspectives of both professionals and young people.

“In terms of using digital technology to augment mental health conversations, most clinicians reported that digital technology has become routinely involved in the delivery of services. This includes meeting young people online as well as recommending digital interventions such as apps or helpful websites.

“The clinicians we surveyed were enthusiastic about potentially integrating data from young people’s mood monitoring apps or social media to enable better assessments. Young people overall felt comfortable with sharing data with clinicians. However, they were much more reluctant to share data from their social media than data from mental health apps.”