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Social media can help decrease depressive symptoms and increase mental-health awareness, but further testing could bring about greater uses.
A duo of researchers from the University of Sydney in Australia discovered a new, encouraging use for social media networks, even as the biggest companies in the industry face scrutiny for their practices in handling users’ private information. Brad Ridout, Ph.D., and Andrew Campbell, Ph.D., conducted a systematic review and found that social media apps and websites could help young adults and teenagers battle mental health issues, a population who experiences half of its non-fatal deaths from these diseases and disorders.
Ridout and Campbell’s review, which they caution did not include enough studies to provide a quantitative meta-analysis, looked at nine articles that covered five studies among people who were 15 to 25 years old. The researchers recently published “The Use of Social Networking Sites in Mental Health Interventions for Young People” in the Journal of Medical Internet Research.
Their inspiration for conducting the review was simple and emblematic of how many people access health information in 2018.
“When seeking information around mental health, many people go online as a first step, and young people are no different,” Ridout told Healthcare Analytics News through an email. “However, over the past decade we have seen that social media has overtaken more trustworthy health websites and services as the preferred avenue for online help seeking among young people, so we wanted to see whether researchers and health professionals had started to [utilize] benefits and appeal that social networking sites (SNSs) have for youth.”
Their review provided several important findings, even if they caution that further research is necessary to accurately assess the capabilities and limitations in social media’s ability to treat mental health issues.
Not only did the young people who participated “find SNS-based interventions highly usable, engaging and supportive,” but these initial studies helped reduce depressive symptoms and provided greater mental-health awareness. Participants, meanwhile, preferred mobile social media networks to desktop versions.
Second, while the review found that the studies all reported high engagement and low dropout rates, studies that used Facebook or a Facebook-like interface had participants who enjoyed the social media network’s ease of use. Explaining why the studies’ participants found the social-media network effective, Ridout noted that Facebook is “very familiar and allows for easy sharing of pictures, videos and links,” facilitating peer-to-peer and moderator-to-peer support.
“Features such as ‘liking’ are great, as they allow for engagement and signs of support even when people don’t necessarily have anything to contribute to a conversation,” Ridout explained.
As it relates to newer social-media apps, especially those like Snapchat and Instagram, there are limitations that prevent their usefulness. “[Snapchat and Instagram] are not as conducive for ongoing conversations,” Ridout said. “Which is what many of the users of interventions found so helpful.”
The most surprising result from the review was pulled from a study that incorporated peer moderators. Ridout said these moderators were not clinical professionals, but they helped people who were using the study-provided social-networking site, providing an element of necessary altruism.
“One of the most powerful aspects of peer support is talking to role models who have successfully dealt with similar challenges to those you are facing,” Ridout said. “This brings benefit not only to the person receiving support, but to the person giving it, as they are reminded of the successful approaches they have taken while paying it forward to others.”
Ridout and his team are developing their own social network, KHL Circles, to help young people in Australia. Their service will provide telephone-based and online counseling services, placing young people in “circles” with others experiencing the same issues. A trained KHL counselor will guide the conversation and provide solution-focused therapy and psychoeducation when appropriate. And to protect privacy (and to counteract the issues currently facing other social-media networks like Facebook), the service will only be open to young people whom KHL knows.
“Privacy and security of data is definitely an issue that should be considered in any online mental health intervention,” Ridout said. “This is why when designing KHL Circles, we ensured that the entire service is hosted on our own secure servers, and all data is stored without any identifying information.”
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