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How youth address mental health issues: Groundbreaking study

Young people are both smart and thoughtful about using digital media and devices – for mental health and other purposes – a groundbreaking new study shows, and they are far from naïve about what doesn’t work for them in social media. The study, by researchers Victoria Rideout and Susannah Fox, had both quantitative and qualitative elements, including a remarkable 2,200 personal responses from its 1,300 respondents, a nationally representative sample of U.S. 14-22 year-olds.

Chart on youth and social media

Chart from the Hopelab/Well Being Trust study

“It is almost as if they were waiting for someone to ask; now it is our turn to listen,” Rideout and Fox wrote in the report’s introduction.

In an unusual concluding statement, they wrote, “It is an emotional experience to be offered this glimpse into the lives of so many young people – to see how important health concerns are in so many of their lives. These youth should be proud of the many ways they are innovating solutions to their health challenges; we can all learn from their openness and use of digital tools to connect with resources and with each other.”

I agree with that last sentence, as well as with what Rideout later wrote me in an email that arrived in my in-box as their report was about to be released: “Most young people are exhibiting a lot more agency in their use of social media than we typically give them credit for.” It’s gratifying to see this takeaway from a prominent researcher, not to mention the empirical evidence behind it, making research a tool for learning about, supporting and enhancing young people’s own strategies for self-care and self-actualization.

“Digital Health Practices, Social Media Use, and Mental Well-Being Among Teens and Young Adults in the U.S.” is just the first report coming out of their research, according to Hopelab and Well Being Trust, the San Francisco-based nonprofit organizations that commissioned it.

The report covers “two main topics,” Rideout and Fox wrote: “first, young people’s self-described use of online health information and digital health tools, including those used for peer-to-peer health exchanges; and second, the associations between self-reported social media use and mental well-being among teens and young adults.”

Here’s just a sampler of what the research turned up (I hope you’ll click to it to see their respondents’ own words on the apps, devices and strategies they use):

  • Multiple resources: Young people seek out and use a wide range of digital resources: health information (87%, on 5 topics: fitness [63%], nutrition [52%], stress [44%], anxiety [42%] and depression [39%]); apps (64%, for fitness, sleep, meditation, and medication reminders; other people’s health stories and experiences (61%, e.g., as told in TED Talks and YouTube videos); interacting with “health peers” (39%, through, e.g., forums and closed social media groups); connecting with healthcare providers (20%).
  • On depression: 90% of young people who report symptoms of depression “have gone online for information on mental health issues (compared to 48% of those without depressive symptoms).”
  • Peer-to-peer help: “This study shows that youth lead the way in the social revolution that is underway in health,” the authors write,” indicating that, though there is some age overlap, almost twice as many young people as adults in the US turn to each other for advice in making health decisions. Thirty-nine percent of 14-to-22 year-olds have sought out “health peers” online. Of those, 84% said they succeeded in finding those people with similar health conditions, and of that 84%, 91% said the experiences was “at least ‘somewhat’ helpful,” 20% “‘very’ helpful.”
  • Age levels: Nearly nine out of ten (87%) teens and young adults say they 87% have gone online for health information: the top five topics searched are fitness (63%), nutrition (52%), stress (44%), anxiety (42%), and depression (39%).
  • Sexual orientation: 98% of LGBQT young people “have gone online to find information about health issues, compared to 86% of those who identify as straight.”
  • Gender: Females 14-22 seek help more than their male counterparts at 91% vs. 83%, respectively.
  • Race/ethnicity: “There are fewer differences by race and ethnicity in our survey sample than by age and gender” and, concerning all health-related efforts/activities mentioned, “no statistically significant differences among White, Black, or Latino youth.” Specifically, “Black youth are more likely to say they have connected to a health provider online (34%, compared to 20% of Whites and 17% of Latinos)” and “more likely to have shared their own health stories online (24%, compared to 13% of White and Latino youth).”

The authors concluded the study with takeaways shaped specifically for public health advocates, patient advocates, healthcare providers, LGBTQ advocates, social media companies and policymakers at federal, state, and local levels. I hope those stakeholders will check out pp. 79 and 80. They ended with this inspiration: “For all those who are working to provide health-related tech tools and solutions for young people, this is an enormous validation that you are on the right path.”

SIDEBAR 1: The latest on young people’s social media use

To understand how U.S. teens and young adults access mental health care and information in a digital age, the authors of this study had to look at the media context. Here are key findings:

  • Curation & self-regulation: “Many young people describe actively curating their social media feeds and self-regulating their social media use in order to maximize positive and minimize negative effects.”
  • How much use: 93% of U.S. 14-22-year-olds use social media, 81% daily, 17% “almost constantly, 54% “multiple times a day, and 7% not at all.
  • Ok/not ok with that: 73% say they feel comfortable with the amount of time and energy they devote to social media, 24% say they spend too much time on it, and 51% say they have taken a break from it at some point.
  • Positive or negative?: “Teens and young adults are far more likely to report frequently receiving positive than negative feedback from others on social media: 32% say they ‘often’ get positive comments from others” while “3% say they ‘often’ get negative comments.
  • Social exclusion: “65% say they ‘hardly ever’ or ‘never’ feel left out when using social media”; 34% say they often or sometimes do (7% of that 34% say “often” and 27% of that 34% “sometimes”) or sometimes (27%) do.
  • Social comparison: 57% say they feel like other people are doing better than they are when using social media (“15% ‘often’ and 42% ‘sometimes'”)
  • Self-presentation: “53% say they feel like they always have to show the best version of themselves on social media (14% strongly agree, 39% somewhat agree [with the “best version of themselves”] statement).”

SIDEBAR 2: In their own words

The authors wrote that they “wanted to highlight youth voices” in this report, so to honor that intention, here are just a few quotes highlighting the wisdom their research turned up among these 14-to-22-year-olds:

Quote from 21 YO Black female respondent“It just helps me feel outside myself for a bit and find interesting topics I’d like to ponder on. When you’re depressed, it’s easy to get caught in a loop but through actively reading every day through social media I can always be preoccupied with information.” –20-year-old White female

“By connecting to some of the online friends I’ve already met, they help support me. I use it to share music or memes that make us laugh, slowly taking the sorrow away.” –21-year-old Black male

“I find people with similar things that are making me sad and I read about how they handle it.” –14-year-old White female

“I’m able to talk to people who have experienced what I have and are able to share what they did to fix their issues.” –21-year-old Black female

A tiny taste of hundreds of thoughtful responses the researchers got to a question very late in the survey about “positive aspects of using social media when feeling depressed, stressed or anxious” (I hope you’ll click to the report for more).

Related links

  • The study in a non-linear, very accessible format at Hopelab.org
  • This study is an antidote to a problem raised by London School of Economics psychology professor Sonia Livingstone in a June 2018 panel discussion on “Addressing the Tech Addiction Discourse” at a symposium in Riga, Latvia: “The addiction discourse is a monolithic one, with complete exclusion of any kind of consideration of the opportunities that technologies can bring…. We know there are risks [in social media use]. But in a discourse where all the opportunities are dropped out, you have to take a critical stance.” Also don’t miss David Kleeman’s presentation, which preceded Sonia Livingstone’s in this video.
  • This issue is certainly being considered from all perspectives, including this from Silicon Valley: “Is technology making us Calm – or causing us Anxiety,” by Alexander Owyang, who’s working on a research project on “Modern Wellness” and the “attention economy” model “for a client who’s building out new technology and wants to be on the right side of history.”
  • There’s the attention our children pay media, and then there’s the attention they need from us. I’ve been writing about the latter for some time, including “Just because they crave attention?” in 2008, when more and more children were going beyond mere sharing to blogging and producing media and, for example in 2018, and using media to effect social change, grabbing their share of the “attention economy.”
  • In Part 2 of “5 young activists in 4 countries,” I highlighted the activists’ own words on the social media crucible: how it affects their mental health and strategies they’ve developed for addressing that. In comments, please share research you’re aware of that looks at how youth are using activism and civic engagement for mental health and well-being.
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