Connected realities – what do practitioners need to know about teens’ online lives?

Connected realities – what do practitioners need to know about teens’ online lives?

“What if we thought about the internet a resource to be deployed rather than as a problem to be solved?” (Jenkins et al, 2016, p.36)  What if we move our focus from a deficit orientated understanding of the online lives of teens to an asset-orientated approach which builds on young people’s strengths? And what does this mean for practitioners working with teens who have mental health difficulties? Perhaps there are better ways of approaching teens’ online lives that enable us to be more effective practitioners.

I am endlessly intrigued by teens’ use of the internet, social media and digital technologies. It is a fascination brought about in equal parts from observing my three teenagers and from the many and various projects we do with teens at mHabitat. I am particularly curious about how health and care practitioners help teens navigate the digital sphere (or not) in their everyday work. Practitioners are worried about the impact of social media on teens, concerned about risk, and at the same time drawn to how apps could help deliver care. Meanwhile teens are frustrated about adults’ lack of understanding about their online lives and are looking for guidance and support which is often lacking.

This set of disconnected realities between teens and practitioners is the subject of a book I am writing with Dr James Woollard. It is a guide for practitioners to help them explore, understand and appreciate teens’ online lives; and to enable them to incorporate this understanding into their work with adolescents affected by mental health difficulties.

The book will bring together the evidence along with stories derived from my development work in the sphere of digital technologies; James’ clinical practice and innovation in the field of digital mental health; and insights from focus groups and interviews. We will address the following themes:

  • Making sense of social media and digital technologies
  • Child development and the internet
  • Digital inclusion and eHealth literacy
  • Digital tools and mobile apps
  • Adverse experiences online
  • Digital rights and responsibilities
  • Having useful/helpful conversations
  • Implications for for services.

We will also produce a chapter with useful resources for practitioners which they can draw on to improve their practice.

We have found that much existing research focuses on the risks posed to young people and practitioners alike. Popular discourse is characterised by a sense of panic in which the internet is seen as harmful to young people and something to be controlled or contained (Gabriel, 2014, p.104). In this book we propose a more rounded view which considers how practitioners can leverage digital technologies to promote resilience and wellbeing in young people, whilst understanding and managing risk. Through interviews and case studies, we will show how teens are using social media, digital technologies and the internet in creative and imaginative ways to manage their mental health and improve their wellbeing. We will share stories about diverse practices online which subvert an oversimplified narrative of good versus bad. As Professor Simon Wesley, ex-president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists asserts:

“I am sure that social media plays a role in unhappiness, but it has as many benefits as it does negatives. We need to teach children how to cope with all aspects of social media – good and bad – to prepare them for an increasingly digitised world. There is real danger in blaming the medium for the message.” (Campbell, 2017)

The book will focus on the interplay between child developmental factors and the impact of external factors in influencing young people’s use of the internet. We also take a rights based approach to considering the digital skills and confidence we can help teens develop so they can navigate their online lives successfully. We make the case that young people’s relationship to the internet is less an issue of technology and more a manifestation of issues of contemporary life such as social and parental pressures (Boyd, 2014, p.16). We believe that practitioners have a vital role in helping young people develop digital resilience and we hope this book will make a contribution to helping them develop the necessary knowledge and understanding.

We’re keen to hear from others working in this field so do get in touch if you’d like to have a chat.


Boyd. D. 2014. It’s Complicated: the social lives of networked teens. Yale University Press.

Campbell, D. 2017. Facebook and Twitter ‘harm young people’s mental health’. The Guardian. Accessed online on 20/05/2017

Gabriel, F. 2014. Sexting, selfies and self-harm: young people, social media and the performance of self-development. Media International Australia, 151(1), pp.104-112.

Jenkins, H., Mizuko, I., Boyd, D. 2016. Participatory Culture in a Networked Era. Polity Press.

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