I am thrilled to share new, national survey data on the digital health landscape.
Thanks to funding and guidance from Hopelab and the Well Being Trust, Vicky Rideout and I measured how teens and young adults (14- to 22-year-olds) pursue health and well-being using the tools at their disposal — apps, peer advice, online communications with clinicians, and much more. Our particular focus was the complex relationship between social media and depression.
Key findings based on the full sample of 14- to 22-year-olds:
- 87% of all teens and young adults (TYAs) say they have gone online for health information. The top five topics searched are fitness (63%), nutrition (52%), stress (44%), anxiety (42%), and depression (39%).
- 64% of all TYAs say they have used mobile apps related to health, including for fitness, sleep, meditation, and medication reminders.
- The majority (61%) say they have read, listened to, or watched other people share about their health experiences online, whether in podcasts, TED talks, or YouTube videos.
- About four in ten (39%) say they have gone online to try to find people with health conditions similar to their own, using methods such as participating in online forums or closed social media groups on specific issues, doing hashtag searches on social media, or following people with similar health conditions.
- One third (33%) of all TYAs have successfully connected with health peers online, and 91% of them say the experience was helpful.
- One in five (20%) TYAs report having connected with health providers online, through tools like online messaging, apps, texting, and video chat.
Key findings looked at through the filter of emotional well-being:
- Respondents who reported moderate to severe symptoms of depression were nearly twice as likely as those with no symptoms to say that social media helps connect them to useful support and advice when they feel depressed, stressed or anxious (25% vs. 13%).
- Teens and young adults are more likely to report receiving positive than negative feedback from others on social media: 32% say they “often” get positive comments from others compared to just 3% who say they “often” get negative comments.
- Teenage girls and young women are more likely than males their age to go online for information about anxiety (55% vs. 29% of males) or depression (49% vs. 27% of males).
- Three out of four LGBTQ youth (76%) have looked online for information about depression, compared to 32% of straight youth; 75% of LGBTQ youth have looked for information about anxiety, compared to 36% of their straight peers; and 68% of LGBTQ youth have looked for information on stress, compared to 40% of straight youth.
We included ample opportunities for respondents to tell us, in their own words, what they think. That’s where you can hear the heartbeat of this research project. It was a moving experience for Vicky and I to read the hundreds of short, personal essays and choose just a fraction to feature in the report. I think young people’s voices haven’t been heard enough in the public conversation about how they use social media & digital health tools. As we wrote in the report, “It is almost as if they were waiting for someone to ask; now it is our turn to listen.”
Here is a tiny sample of the 500+ answers to one question: “Please give us an example of a time you went online to try to find other people with health concerns similar to yours. What was the situation? How did it turn out?”
- I have type 1 diabetes and tried to find a group of teenager type 1’s on Facebook. I did. It was cool. Made some friends. – 14-year-old White male
- I found a very good friend in another country that had the same condition as I did, and it was truly inspiring to have the freedom to tell them about it and likewise them to me! – 21-year-old Latino male
- I wanted to know something about birth control and people had the same questions and it helped me know that I wasn’t alone. – 21-year-old Latina female
- My mom was making me get the hepatitis A vaccine and [another] one for HPV and I didn’t know what the shots were for, and I was too scared to ask the nurse about it, especially after she started talking about gay sex & warts, so I went online to [a medical website] and tried to research it myself. It’s still hard to do that when you don’t what the words mean. I finally asked my mom & she sat down with me, and we got online and did the pros & cons. I felt better after cause she was explaining what I didn’t understand. – 14-year-old White female
On a personal note, going back to research after a 5-year hiatus was like putting on my old hiking boots and finding that I still had a taste for the trail. Quiet, often solitary, but moving forward every day toward a goal.
I hope people dig into the report, debate the meaning of the findings, and continue the conversation — here and elsewhere. If you have immediate reactions to what I’ve shared, please comment below. I can’t wait to learn along with you all about the challenges and opportunities of social media, health, & emotional well-being.
I am proud to feature a photo by my niece Meghan Fox, a fantastic photographer based in St. Louis, MO (and who happens to be in the demographic group we studied).