An interdisciplinary team led by the UOC takes on the challenge of using social media to promote mental health initiatives for adolescents (Image: Aman Pal, Unsplash)
UOC to conduct research into how to make information on mental health go viral to reach adolescents
The project, funded by the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation, features an interdisciplinary team of experts in psychology, social networks and health promotion
Half of mental health conditions start before the age of fourteen, according to WHO data
How can social networks help improve adolescents' mental and emotional health? This is the question to which answers will be sought by the eHealthLit4Teen research project. The project is being led by psychologist Eulàlia Hernández, a researcher in the eHealth Center's Behavioural Design Lab and member of the Faculty of Psychology and Education Sciences at the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC). It is being developed in collaboration with Barcelona's Les Corts Mental Hygiene Centre Association. For Hernández, "adolescents' use of social networks has become excessively demonized, but we believe that they can be a good tool for connecting with them and making resources available to them to help improve their mental and emotional health."
Studies show that half of all mental health conditions begin before the age of fourteen, according to data from the World Health Organization (WHO), and that, in most cases, they are neither detected nor treated, meaning that the consequences are carried over into adulthood. Estimates indicate that every euro invested in mental health programmes provides an economic return of eight euros, according to a study by the European Commission. "That's why it's crucial to prevent and treat these conditions at an early age, especially in adolescence," explained Hernández.
Adolescents centre stage
The project focuses on two main areas: firstly, from the standpoint of psychology, led by Hernández, an expert in health literacy, and by fellow Behavioural Design Lab researcher and UOC faculty member Mercè Boixadós, an expert in behavioural sciences methodology, and, secondly, from that of communication, headed by Ferran Lalueza, a member of the UOC's Faculty of Information and Communication Sciences, a GAME group researcher and an expert in social media. Rounding off the research team as experts in health promotion are Rocío Casañas and Jennifer Martín, from Les Corts Mental Hygiene Centre Association. Also taking part in the project are Lidia Merino, Montserrat Martínez and Hermínia Biescas, all from the field of healthcare and education.
In addition to the interdisciplinary focus of the project, which can count on the support of the Barcelona Education Consortium and the Barcelona Institute of Childhood and Adolescence, another of its strengths is the active participation of adolescents in the third and fourth years of compulsory secondary education at schools in different districts of Barcelona. A representative sample of adolescents has been chosen from state, private and state-aided secondary schools in throughout the city.
In a series of interviews conducted by the UOC research team, young people explained how they use social networks, the influencers they follow and how they find out about health issues, amongst other topics. The greatest challenge is that "we don't know how to engage with the adolescent population. There are lots of organizations with top quality online educational psychology programmes, but they're just not reaching young people. That's why we believe there's a need to foster their participation in the design of mental health programmes based around online communication," said Hernández.
Seeking the keys to viral success online
Another question to be answered is the mechanisms that make content go viral and, in this case, in the field of health. By using social listening tools, the team will analyse what's needed to make messages on health literacy go viral, with a particular focus on mental and emotional health, so as to be in a position to make a real impact on young people. "Nowadays, health organizations around the world are using influencers to promote messages around mental health and also to foster health literacy, as we saw during the pandemic, when organizations as important as the WHO, European governments and the UK's NHS tried to make their coronavirus-related public health messages go viral. We want to understand the mechanisms behind things going viral to be able to reach adolescents, be this via influencers or other tools," said Hernández.
Programmes that fall on deaf ears
More recently, and particularly due to the pandemic, a large number of organizations and institutions, including Barcelona City Council and the Government of Catalonia, have undertaken initiatives to address young people's mental health needs. Actions have included social media campaigns and even WhatsApp groups to act as communication channels with adolescents. Despite these good intentions, "a great may programmes are ignored and, unfortunately, fall on deaf ears. Ultimately, we don't really know how to ensure young people can actually receive the information on mental and emotional health that they need or how to do so in a format that is appealing to them." With the eHealthLit4Teen project, the UOC expects to secure clear guidelines and recommendations in all manner of health initiatives and prevention or awareness-raising campaigns so as to be in a position to tailor the language and channels employed to reach adolescents.
This project is receiving funding from the Spanish Government's Ministry of Science and Innovation, and contributing to UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 3, Good Health and Well-being, amongst others.
Sònia Armengou Casanovas
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The UOC's research and innovation (R&I) is helping overcome pressing challenges faced by global societies in the 21st century by studying interactions between technology and human & social sciences with a specific focus on the network society, e-learning and e-health.
Over 500 researchers and more than 50 research groups work in the UOC's seven faculties, its eLearning Research programme and its two research centres: the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute (IN3) and the eHealth Center (eHC).
Open knowledge and the goals of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development serve as strategic pillars for the UOC's teaching, research and innovation. More information: research.uoc.edu.
Eulàlia Hernández Encuentra
Lecturer in the Psychology and Education Sciences Department
Expert in: ICTs and health, personal and professional use of the Internet for health, health promotion through the use of ICT, lifelong developmental psychology (what people are like at different points in their lives).
Knowledge area: Developmental psychology.
Ferran Lalueza Bosch
Professor in the Faculty of Information and Communication Sciences
Expert in: Crisis communication; corporate communication; social networks; corporate social responsibility; persuasive communication on the Internet.
Knowledge area: Communication, public relations, social media and journalism.