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Generation Scotland Launches Loneliness in the Digital World Study

Attendees at the Loneliness Project Launch Exhibition

Having just celebrated hitting an incredible 10,000 new volunteer signups back in February, this April, Generation Scotland launched a brand-new study: Loneliness in the Digital World.

This research, which invites 12–15-year-olds to participate via a mobile app, is striking not only for its innovative technological approach to exploring the topic of online versus in-person social interactions and feelings of loneliness, but also in how it championed the involvement of young people in health research. Funded by UK Research and Innovation and the Wellcome Trust, it is also special in that it offers £20 compensation to those who complete the full study. This involves responding to four app notifications per day over two weeks. The idea to make sure these notifications fall outside of school hours is but one of the many recommendations made by young people themselves.

A still from the study’s introductory video

From its very beginnings, the Loneliness in the Digital World project has been designed in collaboration with Generation Scotland’s Young People’s Advisory Group (YPAG). The 10 young people in this YPAG, who hail from a variety of backgrounds and locations across Scotland, have been involved throughout all stages of the research, from conception, design and implementation, all the way to contributing to disseminating research materials and study outcomes.

As mentioned by Generation Scotland Chief Scientist Professor Heather Whalley in her recent presentation to the Medical Research Scotland Academy, previous research on the emotions of teenagers have not always included the young people themselves. For example, one study that aimed to examine feelings of irritability did so by presenting an unsolvable maths problem. As Professor Whalley points out, this may be unhelpful not only because it may not make all young people irritable, but also because it fails to capture much of the social context surrounding feelings of irritability.

By involving young people in the design of the Loneliness in the Digital World project, Generation Scotland researchers were able to learn about scenarios that young people themselves described as provoking irritability, be it seeing people queue jumping, being nagged to tidy their room or having their WiFi signal drop out. These scenarios were then used during brain scans to see which areas of the brain were activated once individuals reported feeling irritable.

To celebrate and recognise the YPAG’s contributions to the decision-making process in designing the Loneliness in the Digital World project, young people are routinely compensated for their time and named as co-creators of the study. Furthermore, they receive recognition and certification through partners and youth work providers, including YouthLink Scotland, Young Scot and SHINE.

Most recently, YPAG members also co-curated the project’s launch exhibition at the University of Edinburgh’s Central Library, for which they selected artworks from the collection’s vaults that resonated with them on the theme of loneliness. This event was attended by press from STV as well as representatives from partnership organisations.

YPAG member Sharon Ehimen at the Loneliness Project Launch Exhibition

In the same week as the launch exhibition, the Generation Scotland team were delighted to see their study featured on STV, with interviews from YPAG member Eva Drummond, Chief Scientist Professor Heather Whalley and Young Person Engagement and Recruitment Co-ordinator Sarah Robertson.

At a time when many parents and other adults fear that increased time spent online may be harmful to young people’s mental health, it is important to remember that this may not be the whole picture. Intriguingly, OFCOM’s Online Nation 2023 report highlighted that young adults are “more likely than adults to recognise the benefits of being online for their mental health and general wellbeing”, finding that “48% agree that being online has a positive effect on their mental health, compared to 31% of adults”.

If you or someone you know is aged 12–15 and living in Scotland, you can help researchers to better understand the true impact of online versus in-person social interactions.

Join the Loneliness Project: 

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