We already know that adults around the world are prolific internet users.
Most of us use the internet, apps and social media to research our health concerns, get answers to our health-related questions and follow health advocates.
But what about teens and young people – do they have the same internet behaviours as adults?
We don’t really know – but digital health researchers are keen to find out the answer.
In February and March 2018, researchers from the University of Chicago took a detailed look at how young people aged 14-22 use digital resources to access health information.
The research team surveyed more than 1,300 young people to learn more about how their internet use impacts their mental wellbeing.
With mental health concerns on the rise in young people, many health professionals speculate that young people’s use of social media may be contributing to the rise in adolescent depression.
“These concerns are prompting much-needed research in this area, and highlighting the need to better understand both the wide variety of activities young people are engaging in on social media, and how those media are perceived by young people themselves,” the US researchers wrote.
Sponsored by the Hopelab and Well Being Trust, the cross-sectional survey respondents included youths who have moderate to severe depressive symptoms.
The associations that the researchers found were complex, confirming that investing effort in creating digital health resources for young people will be time well spent.
“This survey also sought to collect young people’s descriptions of a wide variety of social media behaviors to begin to explore the association between types of social media experiences and mental well-being among teens and young adults,” the researchers added.
The research team collected detailed information about how respondents describe using social media, including:
- how often they report checking it
- how often they report posting
- how frequently they say they take specific actions
- whether they say they get positive or negative feedback from their followers, and
- how it makes them feel.
“We present a preliminary look at whether those who report moderate to severe depressive symptoms differ from those without symptoms in how they report using social media,” the researchers wrote.
Here are the ten key findings from the Hopelab research.
You can also download the toplines for insights into the specific questions the researchers asked the survey respondents.
Two-thirds of these youths (64%) say they have used mobile apps related to health to access information.
Four in ten teens and young adults look for connections online with people who have similar health concerns, such as reading blogs, and following hashtags and people on social media.
Three out of four (76%) young people with symptoms of depression used health-related mobile apps.
Nearly half of the young people with no depressive symptoms have also gone online to find information about mental health issues.
Social media is an integral part of young peoples’ lives, with many teens and young adults reporting a mix of both positive and negative aspects of its use.
81% of young people surveyed said that they used social media on a daily basis, with 43% using it for communicating with close friends.
Twenty-one percent of those with moderate to severe depressive symptoms described themselves as “constant” users of social media, as did 16% of those with no symptoms (not a statistically significant difference).
Similarly, 59% of those with moderate to severe symptoms and 62% of those with no symptoms said they use social media “several times as day,” also not a significant difference.
Young people with moderate to severe depressive symptoms found social media could help them connect to useful support and advice by being a source of inspiration, creative expression and reducing feelings of isolation.
When it comes to feeling less alone, finding inspiration, and providing a venue for creative self-expression, social media could be more important for young people with moderate to severe depressive symptoms.
Young people with depression are also more likely to use social media to communicate with others when compared to young people without depressive symptoms.
Negative experiences include things like reacting to getting fewer likes or comments on posts or more negative comments.
Nearly two-thirds of young people surveyed agreed that they were also more likely to feel stressed and anxious from bad news they read on social media.
The active and passive behaviours include things like commenting more frequently on posts or scrolling people’s feeds without posting.
There also was no difference in young people’s use of social media when they have depressive symptoms compared to their peers.
76% of LGBTQ young people surveyed are more likely than others their age to report seeking online information about depression.
Teenage girls and young women are also more likely than males to seek information online about anxiety or depression.
Interestingly, young people with depressive symptoms are not significantly more likely to feel “presentation pressure” to present their “best selves” online.
“Intended as a beginning” – study limitations
Of course, this research is preliminary and there are limitations.
“It is important to note that due to the cross-sectional, self-reported nature of these survey responses, we are not able to assess the full possible relationship between social media use and depression, nor can we draw any conclusions with regard to causality,” the authors wrote.
“Rather, this survey is intended as a beginning – an attempt to gather a wide range of information on the many ways young people report using and responding to social media, and how their reported social media use does or does not vary based on their depressive symptoms.”
The take-home: What this means for you as a health communicator
We are starting to learn more about how young people use the internet to research their health.
And, previous research has suggested that teens are interested in understanding and learning more about health.
Tailored strategies to help teens and young people navigate specific health concerns and provide a positive environment should be a focus of any health writing project that has the potential to reach young people
Creating specific resources for teens and young people, as well as teen-friendly versions of health content, are key considerations.
Remember: as health writers, we are also public health and industry advocates. We can suggest and make recommendations for content strategies based on this new research.
Over to you
Do any of these findings surprise you? Let me know in the comments.