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Understanding Young People’s Social Media Use Drives Improved Clinical Outcomes in Mental Health

Friday 26 April, 2024

by Wakithi Mabaso (South Africa-at-Large & Trinity 2022)

Social media and messaging apps are a melting pot of online activity. Young people - much like the rest – are connected digitally unlike ever before and even the American Paediatric Association now describes online relationships as a typical part of adolescent development.

Young people ascribe innumerable benefits to their social media use. Ranging from funny cat memes that take the edge off life, to convenient speedy communication and most things in between. However, the developing adolescent brain holds some critical vulnerabilities during this period, including an affinity for novel experiences and a susceptibility to externally positioned validation.

It is precisely in this gap where most efforts towards understanding the inbuilt risks social media platforms pose to young minds finds greatest utility. My MSc research dissertation in Global Health Science and Epidemiology examined differences in anxiety and depression outcomes between adolescents with public social media accounts and adolescents with private social media accounts, using data from the OxWell Student Survey across 180 schools in England. I am grateful to have attended the South African Association of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Allied Professions (SA-ACAPAP) conference in Stellenbosch, South Africa to present the findings from this work and establish new collaborations at the intersection of science, education and policy.

Child and adolescent mental health is the discipline within the field of Psychiatry where multiple actors align towards the service of young people still undergoing important changes in their brain development. Mental health disorders are prevalent in 10-15 % of young adolescents worldwide and among them anxiety and depression lead the burden followed by emerging research into neurodiversity in various contexts. In attendance at SA-ACAPAP were psychologists, NGOs, speech pathologists, psychiatrists, occupational therapists, and researchers hailing from neighbouring Botswana, Zimbabwe, Kenya and further abroad in Brazil, Ireland, the United States, Norway, Poland, Bangladesh and Colombia. The richness of the experience was palpable, with valuable academic contributions from researchers across the spectrum.

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On the first day, sessions made for fertile discussion on topics ranging from the lab to the patient bedside and beyond into the community and on the ground. Updates on the epidemiology of attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) were presented alongside low-resource adaptations for autistic youth. Ninety-five percent of children live in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) whilst only 5% of published research outputs come from the experiences of children in LMICs. Research heavily influences clinical guidelines, and imbalances in research outputs illuminate major blind spots in global approaches to mental health challenges the world over. SA-ACAPAP was a showcase of just one of the many generative spaces where research in the South continues to make its mark on the lives of the 95%.

The second day contended with the ethics of digital media’s impact on adolescents and wowed with honest reflections on gender-affirmative care services where demand for services in South Africa presently outstrips professional supply. A key takeaway described the rates of mental distress in a cohort of young people receiving gender affirming care drop to zero, following the acknowledgement of their challenges and the provision of sensitive affirming care in a professional setting. I found myself buoyed by the passion and rigour propelling all the stakeholders present; against a beautiful mountain backdrop - making for a truly unforgettable experience.

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I was honoured to attend a preconference workshop for Emerging Researchers. The depth and quality of mentorship and the creativity of the exercises brought to bear some important oversights and assumptions which had crept in during my time at Oxford, a startling and necessary realignment. My gratitude to mentors Prof Petrus de Vries, Prof Eugene Jacobs, Prof Michal Harty, Dr Anna Ordóñez, Dr Stella Mokitimi, Ms Marissa Viljoen, my brilliant colleagues and the tireless conference organisers.

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Ultimately, my love for impactful research was bolstered and my sense of fulfilment from service to community came home to roost. It is important to share topical work with the populations whose data contribute to its production and efforts at making OxWell findings available to young people through school-based access & outreach are ongoing. If any one image could convey my why it comes in the form of a question posed by a high-school student following a talk, who stopped to consider her own options for the future.

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Next stop, the International Association for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Allied Professions (IACAPAP) conference in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. With attendance registration sitting at 2700 adolescent mental health professionals from 93 countries, it promises to be an untold experience.

To end I will leave my favourite quote from the conference: “When you’re in a position where you have options, then know that you are in a place of immense privilege.”

I am very grateful to have received the support of the Murray Speight grant.  

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