25th June 2020 Blog

Screen time, involvement and what it means for young people to be involved in research

Digital mental health • Young people •

Lucy, a member of McPin Foundation’s YPAG

Screen time and young people’s mental health is a topic often discussed by society, academics and clinicians alike. However, it remains misunderstood and little researched, especially through research that is co-produced with young people and their parents and/or carers.

As a member of the McPin Foundation’s Young People’s Advisory Group (YPAG), I was fortunate enough to work on a project led by UCL researchers from the NIHR Mental Health Policy Research Unit, Anna Freud Centre, Centre For Mental Health and Kings College London which aimed to identify the most important questions regarding the role of screen time in the mental health of people aged 11–25 years.

The first stage of the project was to find out what young people, their parents/carers and researchers thought were the most important, unanswered questions.

The YPAG was involved in helping the researchers construct small group discussions with people ranging in age between 11 – 25 years. In order to make these sessions productive, I suggested that they should be interactive in nature.

One of the strategies was a ball that was passed around the group as people took it in turns to speak, another was an ‘anonymous box’ for young people to feedback without fear.

One of the first suggestions from the YPAG was to ensure that every young person felt comfortable and supported to contribute to the discussion. We suggested that mentors were on site and actively involved in order to help guide and support.

I was particularly pleased to see that a framework designed in another project was used by the UCL researchers; a survey designed by young people and McPin called ‘Right People, Right Questions’ (RPRQ).

It was exciting to see this project that I was involved with be applied to other research.

The next step was creating a public survey to collect people’s thoughts on the important questions about screen time for researchers to answer – or in other words, to find out what people wanted researchers to prioritise. We were involved in the development of this survey, advising the researchers on the language used to make sure that it was appropriate and relevant to a young audience.

Don’t neglect the positives

As part of the project, two YPAG members sit on the steering group, which consists of a group of researchers and key stakeholders who meet regularly to make key decisions about the project and to ensure that it is doing the things it set out to do.

When I attended the steering group, I felt it was crucial to stress the positive impacts of screen time on mental health. The young people in the steering group acknowledged that the use of screens and social media can actually have a positive effect on the mental health.

For example, the Body Positive Movement, which found wide public attention on Instagram in 2012, has created an all-size-inclusive space on the internet. It aims to foster positive body image in individuals, and thus counteract the mainstream media’s toxic narrative on cultural standards of beauty. Social media was key to the building of awareness in this movement.

This was echoed by other young people who highlighted how online forums and groups, where one can meet like-minded people and interact over the internet, is massively beneficial to mental health and creating an overall sense of belonging.

Often researchers (and adults, more generally) can get carried away with the negative associations with screen time. I wanted to steer the team away from this potential bias in their research. Reminding the researchers to refrain from leading questions, and to be open minded in the discussion groups and while analysing data was crucial.

Covid raises new questions

The YPAG also helped the researchers identify strong themes in the questions collected via the survey. A few important themes were: sleep, consumerism/advertising algorithms, body image/self-esteem and body positivity, and loneliness.

Additionally, we helped identify questions to remove from the list altogether because they were completely unrelated to mental health. Rewording or removing questions was difficult, as it felt like we were discounting a valuable submission; therefore, we did our best to limit the number of removals.

At around this stage, the Covid-19 pandemic emerged, and it was really important to make the research relevant to young people in this challenging moment.

In response we included some questions in the survey which explored Covid-19’s impact on screen use and mental health. A scary and uncertain time for all, the project was somewhat delayed as a result, however as a result we saw some really important questions emerge and a new issue to address.

Multiple stages of involvement

Taking part in the project was an interesting and rewarding experience. I found that the other young people involved brought important ideas and suggestions to the project through their own personal expertise.

It was particularly valuable to be involved at multiple stages of the research development. I found I could give more informed feedback, as well as see the project progress to its final stage, which was really rewarding.

Often researchers involve young people at one isolated stage of their study, which can sometimes be tokenistic. From the perspective of a young person, I believe that it is more beneficial for both parties to have the voice of young people involved and guiding the project from start to finish.

In a screen-obsessed world, young people are most qualified to highlight the pressing issues that affect them and their mental health. Being actively involved in an issue affecting my own, as well as my peers’, lives gave me great purpose, and I hope that some of these research questions can be explored in the future, bringing us one step closer to a more nuanced understanding of the impact of screens on young people’s mental health.

I urge young people to take part in the prioritisation survey, and similarly get involved in research that is addressing an issue that is shaping our minds and our societies.

By having your say about what questions matter, we can make sure that this research is something that we – young people – could actually benefit from!

For young people, parents and teachers, to complete the survey, follow the link.

More information on the YPAG and McPin Foundation’s work with young people, click here.

Read more about the Screen Time project