Developing a proposal to examine the role of social media literacy in self-harm prevention

To what level does poor social media literacy impact mental health issues and the risk of self-harm in teenagers? How can we combine intervention development and evaluation to improve mental health outcomes at a population level with a media literacy focus in the context of secondary education curriculum development?

Harmful social media content has been implicated in exacerbating poor mental health in children and young people, perhaps most notably in the inquest of 14-year-old Molly Russell, who died by suicide following intensive interaction with content that ‘romanticised acts of self-harm by young people’, discouraged help-seeking and ‘portrayed suicide as an inevitable consequence’ of depression (BBC News, 30th September 2022). The coroner noted the algorithmic promotion of related content as an important contributing factor in exposing Molly to increasingly extreme or disturbing content and encouraging bingeing of such material. The issues raised by cases such as these, and by extensive media comment, continue to be of pressing concern in today’s society and are certain to remain so.

What will the project involve? 

The primary investigator, Lizzy Winstone, intends to work alongside the McPin Foundation Young People’s Advisory Group (YPAG). This will enable her to engage with the YPAG and to develop a collaborative fully-fledged proposal for an ambitious and timely post-doctoral research fellowship. The crux of the research fellowship will be to investigate the role of social media algorithmic literacy in preventing self-harm and depression in young people. This project and its collaborative and interdisciplinary elements will build on Winstone’s PhD and early post-doctoral experience. In her previous research, algorithmic literacy was highlighted during qualitative interviews as a knowledge gap for young social media users, and of particular importance to those with poor mental health. The project seeks to combine intervention development and evaluation to improve mental health outcomes at a population level with a media literacy focus in the context of secondary education curriculum development.

Following initial discussions with the McPin Foundation on the feasibility and cost implications of this involvement, the project aims to recruit and consult with three young people aged 16-18 years who have lived experience of self-harm and/or depression to help elaborate three aspects of Winstone’s fellowship proposal:

  • First, to collaborate to develop and refine a research question, scope and search strategy for a systematic review. This review would aim to synthesise evidence of the effectiveness of social media literacy interventions in protecting young people’s mental health. Emerging evidence is scant and largely focused on interventions to enhance body image and prevent eating disorders. It will therefore be prudent to broaden the scope of the review to mental health outcomes including (but not limited to) self-harm.
  • Second, to provide written input into the focus and scope of an intervention to improve social media literacy in UK secondary schools, and the prioritisation of outcomes to include in a feasibility pilot study (for example, exposure to self-harm content, measures of well-being, depression or self-harm thoughts and behaviours).
  • Third, to provide written feedback on a lay summary of my proposal for the fellowship.

The McPin Foundation Youth Involvement Lead has provisionally agreed to recruit young people through the McPin YPAG networks, allowing targeted recruitment based on specific lived experience and with necessary safeguarding measures in place. The project will prepare a four-page document summarising the proposal, with several specific closed and open-ended questions for young people. McPin facilitators will manage and collate feedback from young people, as well as contributing their own ideas and input. In exchange, Winstone will provide a brief report to McPin – to be shared with the three young contributors – about how their feedback was incorporated into the proposal.

Who are the team and what do they bring?

  • Lizzy Winstone (Population Health, Bristol Medical School) is a mixed methods researcher interested in young people’s mental health, well-being and self-harm. Her PhD focused on how young people use social media (in terms of different online activities), and whether this relates to their mental health. She also explored how connected young people feel to their peers, family and school, and how this relates to their social media use.
  • The McPin Foundation was established in 2007 as a mental health research charity that is increasingly devoted to involving people with lived experience as partners in research that aims to have a transformative impact.

What is to come?

A fellowship application to National Institute of Health Research and to Wellcome are the intended outcome of this Ideas Exchange project. Moreover, Winstone intends to continue and expand her collaboration with the McPin Foundation YPAG to co-design the content and format of the schools-based social media literacy intervention, ensuring that this is relevant, acceptable and accessible to young social media users.

Social media use is now ubiquitous among young people. Learning to navigate social media algorithms is a key skill required to live well in a digitalised 21st century. The ultimate goal of this co-designed intervention would be to empower young people to use social media safely and confidently by minimising exposure to material that may be detrimental to their mental health.