Technological innovation – a gift or a curse for young people’s mental health?

21 January 2019

 “If you are lucky enough to look under 25 you will be asked to prove that you are over 18”.

This phrase should be familiar enough to anyone that’s entered a licensed retailer in the UK. However, if we put aside looks (and alcohol) for the moment, just how “lucky” are you really if born around 1994/1995, on the cusp of what we call Generation Z?

Political uncertainty notwithstanding, the growing proliferation of technology we are currently witnessing offers seemingly limitless possibilities for current and future generations, the kinds of which would have seemed unimaginable several years, let alone decades ago.

It’s still hard to appreciate that the legendary Deep Blue Supercomputer (of 1997 chess-master-Garry Kasparov-beating-fame) can no longer hold a candle to the processing power of modern day smartphones. This despite being slightly bulky by comparison...

Of course, what is extraordinary about smartphones extends far beyond their size and sleek design. Their capabilities include supporting financial inclusion through the advent of mobile banking applications. They can also help develop our skills - through new foreign language tools for example – and even make medical expertise more readily available through accessible online consultations.

But for all the technological capabilities at our collective and individual disposal, Pro Bono Economics Chair and former UK Cabinet Secretary Lord Gus O’Donnell has recently said that we are at risk of creating a “Troubled Generation” in the UK. NHS Digital Prevalence Survey findings – released November 22nd 2018 on children and young peoples’ wellbeing (examined in an earlier blog of our ours) also suggest as much. Why is this? The pressure on young people to succeed? Poverty? Sexual identity? All surely contribute.

But social media? This stands as perhaps the main embodiment of 21st century technical ingenuity. Yet it’s ability to potentially exacerbate mental health issues – given the platform it offers to showcase an individual’s virtues and (perceived) flaws to a huge audience – is one that has attracted much attention and therefore deserves unpacking.

The NHS Digital Survey findings show that among young people who use social media daily, those registering an emotional disorder tended to use social media for longer. Young people with a disorder were also more likely to feel that the number of ‘likes’ they got affected their mood than those without a disorder[1]. What does this mean?

To examine this question (among others) and what action needs to be taken, Pro Bono Economics gathered representatives from academia, charities, and education, early last month (December 2018) for an expert roundtable discussion, as the data posed as many questions as it presented answers. While all accepting the potential for social media to potentially amplify mental health issues, participants also suggested that such online platforms can in fact serve as signposts towards resources offering support for troubled youngsters, as well as enabling easier communication across the platforms themselves. Meaning it may be premature to thoroughly condemn social media.

After all, while no doubt sobering, these numbers serve to demonstrate correlation rather than causation. Put another way, did the children showing signs of emotional disorders already have underlying issues that propelled them towards social media use more frequently? Or, was social media itself the root cause of the problems in the first place? This key question remains unclear.

Social media clearly has its detractors and deleterious effects; but the technology that has enabled its development has also given us the capability to collect and examine numbers on the scale needed to ultimately understand the causes behind worrying societal trends.

If we are to move beyond scratching the surface of the potential within rich datasets, such as those released by NHS Digital, sophisticated analysis is required.

Pro Bono Economics is looking to conduct just such analysis over the coming year – our tenth year of doing so - in pursuit of clear determinants of poor levels of mental health among young people in this country and ultimately, evidence-based policymaking. Given that in 2016/17 alone there were 545,000[2] children and adolescents referred to NHS Secondary Mental Health Services at a cost, according to the NHS, of £698million[3], this appears a worthwhile endeavour.

If we can seize such potential this may go some way to ensuring that young people are once again “lucky enough” to be at that point in their lives.

This blog was authored by Pro Bono Economics' Director of Public Affairs Simon Burns. The views expressed in this blog are those of the blog’s author alone and do not necessarily represent those of Pro Bono Economics.

 

[1] NHS Digital (2018) Mental Health of Children and Young People in England, 2017, Summary of key findings - https://files.digital.nhs.uk/F6/A5706C/MHCYP%202017%20Summary.pdf

[2] NHS Mental Health Bulletin (2017), “2016-17 Annual report”, Table 1.1, sum of all patients under the age of 18 using NHS mental health services.

[3] NHS (2018) “Reference costs 2016/17; highlights, analysis and introduction to the data”, Table 4: https://improvement.nhs.uk/resources/reference-costs/

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