By Dr Trevor Lakey, Health Improvement and Inequalities Manager, NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde.

Almost every day there’s news on the risks and dangers of the web and social media for our young people’s wellbeing. And of course, there’s no smoke without fire – there’s a growing body of evidence of the negative impacts that the digital world can have. This ranges from overuse and impact on sleep, impact on mood and mental state, online bullying, sexting and the risks of online exploitation.

How do we respond to these perceived threats? Trying to hermetically seal young people off from the internet seems counterproductive and doomed to fail. And twenty five years on, not even Tim Berners-Lee can turn the internet off.  So is there an alternative, could we be more focused on the positive potential of the digital world for young people’s wellbeing?

This is the angle we’ve been taking in our Aye Mind programme, in Greater Glasgow and Clyde. Our start was to involve young people directly in exploring the potential of digital technology in promoting good mental health.  We felt it was vital to engage directly to understand and learn from young people’s own views and experiences, but also their ideas and creativity, in line with Article 12 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

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Aye Mind core partners at the June launch

With the major boost of winning an EU grant (via its CHEST fund) and a great set of partners (including Young Scot, Mental Health Foundation and Snook), we have been exploring and creating a new set of resources and approaches that we feel show the huge promise for the positive side of technology.

So, what have we found and what have we developed?

We have identified hundreds of digitally-based resources that can have a role in promoting young people’s mental health and wellbeing. Within our Aye Mind platform, we’ve curated a selection of over 60 of these in an online database. These range from apps like DocReady that assist young people in preparing for a GP visit, HeadMeds providing information for young people on mental health medication, and the MyJourney app for mood tracking and support around accessing clinical services. There are online education resources too, like MindEd for professionals and campaigning and outreach programmes like It Gets Better, focused on supporting LGBT young people through difficult transitions. We’ve also created a comprehensive workers’ toolkit to help colleagues make better use of the digital world for youth wellbeing and a blog section to further share and discuss this emerging field.

Our face-to-face work with young people has involved linking with a wide range of youth groups, including young carers. We’ve had some tremendous interactions with young people, who have worked with us to craft a range of new mental wellbeing resources – such as this set on the Bored Panda platform – covering issues like sleep, anger and tackling stress.

We have also developed an approach to support young people making their own animated gifs, so they can share their custom messages to help their peers. With an incredible imagination on display, you can see for yourself the fantastic range of gifs that young people have developed – featuring everything from “being there for your pals”, to concerns about spending too long online, to exam stress. And you can read more about the methods used here.  Crucially, this includes having suitably trained workers available during the sessions, able to respond to any emotional issues raised.

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Young people getting creative in the gif-making workshop!

So, what conclusions would we draw from our Aye Mind developments with young people? We’ve learned that digital technology has some major positives as well as negatives and that we need to work closely with young people to allow them to realise this potential. This points to a robust approach to building digital literacy – which will be essential to many aspects of modern life – how can they find, access and use positive digital resources if they don’t know they are there?

We’ve also learned that many frontline workers need much better help to better understand the positives of the digital world, as well as address the more often discussed negative dimensions.

As the 5Rights campaign highlights, young people have a right to digital literacy, to online safety and support and to informed and conscious choices. And technology is most likely to meet their needs if they have been involved in developing and refining it, in line with the real issues of their lives.

Note: anyone who has concerns about children’s use of internet should consult resources like the NSPCC guide on online safety and you can check out specific digital tools via their NetAware resource.

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