Promoting positive mental health by supporting young people with care experience online

Dr. Simon Hammond shares his thoughts on online safety and advice to help promote positive mental health for young people with care experience.

Dr Simon P Hammond

Applied Psychologist and Lecturer in Education, UEA

All young people, but particularly groups who are vulnerable offline, should receive support when online. However, for young people with experience of being “looked after” by the state, this can be lacking. Focusing more on the risks of this group being online obscures the risks of them being online.

Given the poor mental health and tendency for this group to share too much with people who may do them harm – and too little with carers trying to help, this was once understandable. However, a ‘digital future’ – in which technology plays an increasingly important role – means change is required.

Focus on digital literacy

Recent changes to the National Curriculum will see English school pupils learn about being safer online in Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) education. The key to these changes is enhancing pupil’s digital literacy; the ability to distinguish fact from fiction, to understand how digital platforms work, and to exercise one’s voice and influence. However, these changes overlook those not in formal education, a common occurrence for young people with care experience.

Informal learning and digital storytelling – research findings

That’s why we conducted a study that aimed to create an in-depth picture of what would happen if young people with care experience took part in a digital storytelling project to increase their digital literacy.

Digital storytelling involves producing a short story, in our study, we asked participants to record video logs (vlogs) about their lives over a 7-month period. This offered those who took part in an informal education opportunity – hands-on learning of new skills outside of formal school settings – that allowed them to show high-level digital literacy as makers and not just consumers of digital content.

Our ten young respondents spoke about their everyday lives in a variety of creative ways. They were able to reflect on their current housing arrangements and their relationships with staff and other young people, increasing their sense of identity and belonging. Some young people recorded vlogs in the style of news reports with others preferring more intimate diary entries. We also found vlogs provided spaces for young people to express, process, and reflect upon their feelings about their pasts in powerful and therapeutic ways.

More insight and support needed for a better digital future

>As the government continues to set out plans for world-leading online safety measures, the nurturing and educating of all is vital. Offline vulnerabilities can transcend, amplify and mutate online. We found that there are ways outside of formal education in which we can better support those deemed to be vulnerable online, both in terms of supporting mental health provision and digital literacy. We’re keen to do more work to understand how to support young people’s positive mental health in an increasingly digital world.

Given a large percent of young people with care experience aren’t in formal education, informal education via carers is vital. As we await the Government’s Media Literacy Strategy, one wonders how a lack of mandatory training for carers of this group will impact the digital literacy skills of care-experienced populations.