Posted: 17 May 2018

Mythbusting in Mental Health Awareness Week

I currently spend a lot of my time at Bethnal Green Ventures (BGV), an organisation that invests in 'tech for good' ventures, and I'm here to support The Children’s Society’s latest sponsored social tech ventures,  Chanua Health and Mind Moose, working on the BGV accelerator programme.

At a health conference last week, Naomi Mwasambili, co-founder of Chanua Health, ran a session about digital mental health. Many of the questions Chanua received in the session related to 'digital mental health' and at the very basic level 'what is digital mental health?' Many people in the session talked about how they thought it was about keeping young people safe on social media. Some took it a step further, choosing to define it as ‘helping young people to avoid social media’.

As it is Mental Health Awareness Week, I felt it important to talk about and possibly put right, some of the age old concerns and suspicions related to this thing we call ‘digital mental health’. Love a bit of myth busting, I do!

Digital mental health

I’m sure you can agree with me in saying that technology - especially digital communication - is a double-edged sword for young people.

The Good Childhood Report 2017 found that moderate social media usage is associated with higher levels of well-being than no usage, in relation to specific aspects including life satisfaction, friendship and school life. However, the same report also found strong links between excessive use of social media (more than four hours a day) and low well-being. 

It's clear that digital technology has its positives and and its negatives. It has opened pathways for young people, and opportunities for them to grow networks and is a gateway to quicker, easier and more diverse sharing experience. But it has also opened the door for exploitation, bullying and a very transient and disingenuous sense of 'friendship'. It can also be an overload of information/communication that can actually compound the sense of isolation some young people feel.

However, the default view is to see tech and digital communications especially, as a negative. How about we flip this risk aversion and suspicion on its head? How can we use tech and digital communication, including social media, as a means to help young people where they are, where they congregate?

Using 'Tech for good'

Co-founders of Chanua Health, Naomi and Megan Charles, who have both worked in the NHS, statutory services, voluntary sector and small and medium enterprises, mentioned countless situations where young people had gone missing, and still posted on their social media feeds. They have seen situation where young people have posted suicide notes on Instagram and were found to be encouraged to commit suicide by others - with no intervention from trusted professionals - because they had no idea this was happening. And if you don't know about Fortnite - it's time you educate yourself - online chat functions, team capacity, free download to mobile and no age restriction means a field day for potential exploitation.

Zoe Ross, co-founder of Mind Moose has similar observations. She confirms that 50% of all mental health problems start by the age of 14 (Kessler et al, 2005) and there is much evidence that adult mental health problems can be prevented by early identification and intervention in childhood (Department for Health, 2010).

The two ventures I have mentioned here are extraordinary. They are both focused on 'tech for good' and are myth busting in process. From the first time The Children’s Society met Chanua Health and Mind Moose, who we've sponsored and supported, we were blown away by their passion to help children and young people, and the diverse and deep experience that, as a cohort, they bring to helping tackle mental and emotional health issues and promote well-being. We could also see the potential for their products to ultimately create a positive impact for young people facing multiple disadvantage.

So how are they helping young people with their mental and emotional health?

Mind Moose

Mind Moose is one of the web platorms we're currently trialling and is focused on building resilience, support networks and mental well-being.

This interactive game is targeted at 8-12 year olds, a crutial age range, particularly as we know transitioning from primary to secondary school to be a tricky time in young people’s lives.

Mind Moose and his friends take children on a fun, interactive journey to learn about mental well-being. It demonstrates how their brains and minds work, and the tools they can use to help navigate through life's ups and down and thrive. Using research from psychology, character education and beyond, Mind Moose gives children practical tools to help them understand themselves and improve their relationships with others.

The best part of Mind Moose is how it enables a parents, carers and teachers to get involved with the game. Early evaluation demonstrates how having a parent and child engaging in Mind Moose together has improved their relationship, not because of the product, but because of the time the child and parents have spent together doing something fun, constructive and positive.

Chanua Health

Chanua Health have created the Neuro Champions programme, which supports and trains young people (aged 11 -19) to use digital technology to become mental health ambassadors. The programme encourages young people to explore and understand mental health, focusing on the brain, neuroscience, the body and behaviour. They then create educational digital content to share online with peers.

Working with The Children’s Society, Chanua aims to create a virtual/augmented reality (VR/AR) game to teach children about the brain and how it impacts their mental and emotional health and well-being. It was great to spend time with them trying out the new Oculus Go VR headset, and experiencing being immersed in a whole new world.

The future digital mental health for young people

Both of these ventures have played leadership roles in the digital mental health community. This has ensured that they have learnt the best way to nurture the well-being of individual young people while highlighting, first-hand, the disparity between what is needed and what is offered. They both want to achieve meaningful innovations that inspire and empower children and young people to improve their health and well-being.

These are only two examples of how we could continue to strive to flip the balance between negative perceptions of tech and digital comms to more positive experiences both from young peoples’ and professionals’ points of view.

Naomi and I chatted for ages about pros and cons of tech and digital comms. We tried to put the world to right. We can’t keep young people off digital comms, including social media as it’s now become their primary mode of communication.

Children and young people are spending hours on social media everyday. Our survey of children and young people for our Cyberbulling inquiry found that nearly half (44%) stated that they spend three hours or more per day on social media. 

But we can still try to keep them safe whilst they're using these platforms. We spoke about ways in which services could set up their own social media accounts to enable engagements with young people (you would be surprised how many follows you get back from young people!). But it’s so much bigger than just social media.

How do we promote positive digital mental health you say? Let’s continue to embrace social tech that helps young people receive support to overcome whatever challenges they may face, so that they can enjoy and have a positive childhood experience.

For further information, please contact Kirsten Naudé



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