Young people want more support in digital health education, according to new study

Researchers from the Universities of Bath, Salford and New South Wales are calling for digital literacy lessons to cover health technologies

More than 70% of young people are utilising apps, YouTube videos and other digital technologies to monitor their health, and are calling for greater levels of support in digital health education, a new report has found.

Developed by researchers from the University of Bath, the University of Salford and the University of New South Wales, the study’s findings suggest that digital health should form part of the global digital literacy curriculum.

Published alongside the Welcome Trust, the report, titled Digital Health Generation, says that youth across the UK and the world are “growing up in a time when healthcare is increasingly turning towards digital tools”.

The survey gathered responses from over 1,000 young people – some as young as eight. According to the findings, 75% of participants owned their first mobile phone or tablet device between the ages of 8 and 11, with 70% stating that they use these devices for health purposes such as fitness or dieting.

Report authors say that the surge in the use of such technologies can cause issues for data collection, security and ownership, but also exposes users to fake news, misinformation and triggers for body dysmorphia. As such, the researchers say that schools must integrate digital health into the digital literacy and health curriculum.

The study highlights the considerable growth of health websites, blogs, social sites, apps and wearable devices in recent years – and especially throughout the lockdown period. These platforms, services and technologies serve a range of purposes, including measuring performance and activity (Fitbits and Strava), as well as apps that help with dieting and YouTube videos that offer advice.

While many of these tools promote a ‘healthy lifestyle’, there are currently no educational guidelines for use and young people are calling for support.

The findings suggest that while young people often rely on the health advice they find through their apps or online, many worry that they do not know enough to recognise when they are over-exercising or restricting their diet too much. Some of these tools encourage self-monitoring, which can often lead to disordered eating or excessive amounts of exercise. In some extreme cases, respondents’ routines became so harmful that their parents were forced to intervene.

“Over recent years, there has been a surge of new online apps, blogs and videos specifically targeting young people with messages about personal improvement in their health and lifestyle,” said the report’s lead researcher, Professor Emma Rich from the University of Bath. “These technologies offer certain opportunities for young people, but they also carry risks both in terms of the direct advice and guidance given – and the implications this can have in relation to body image, for instance – but also wider concerns about data storage and ownership by third parties.

“Our findings suggest young people want to learn more about this topic, but need help in navigating a fast-paced, fast-changing online environment,” added Professor Rich. “Digital health education should promote learning that would benefit young people in ways that help them feel better prepared to manage their online health identities, particularly in relation to social media. Educational policymakers need to take notice of this specific issue in order to uptake and expand current provision within the curriculum. This trend in online health technologies will only continue to increase and we need to ensure young people have the skills and know-how to best cope.”

In related news: Lockdown attainment gap could take a year to close


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