In a pandemic full of lockdowns, online learning, and endless hours inside, social media platforms have become a valuable source of socialisation for youth across the globe.
The safety of these online spaces though, especially for young people’s mental health, is often called into question.
Emily Unity has spent the last few years changing the conversation around social media, both as an young person and as a lived experience consultant.
She explained that social media presents a double-edged sword for mental health discussions.
“People recognized the opportunity it might present for intervention but at the same time the potential for harm or distress,” she said.
While mental health experts have spent years developing safe language guidelines to reduce risk, young people have been left out of the conversations.
Emily believes social media platforms allow teenagers across the world to connect with peers and express themselves.
“It’s a space where young people can choose to be unapologetically ourselves,” she said.
Safe conversations on social media could empower young people to reach out and support their peers as well as reduce the risks of triggering content, if they were given the right tools and the knowledge.
That’s where #chatsafe comes in.
Chatsafe began as a 30-page academic document and ended as a successful tool to support and empower young people to have conversations about mental health on social media.
Associate Professor Jo Robinson led the development of the #chatsafe guidelines after research showed existing approaches weren’t necessarily meeting the youth where they needed it.
Other industries have guidelines on how to discuss and address death by suicide, and yet young people and social media were left out.
“The dominant narrative at the time when we developed #chatsafe was that social media was bad, and that we shouldn’t be using social media to talk about suicide, because it was harmful,” Associate Professor Robinson said.
“Young people will do what young people will do and what ever we think is irrelevant, surely, it’s better for us to help them look after themselves and do it safely?”
“We recognise that social media environments provided a really important platform for these conversations that they found hard to have in the real world, and so we didn’t want to take that away from them,” said Associate Professor Robinson.
Emily Unity was in full support of upskilling rather than censoring, and empowering young people to reach out and support each other.
“I think with clinicians there is a tendency to bubble-wrap us, but that doesn’t take away the risk,” she said.
Chatsafe’s Research Assistant Charlie Cooper has worked hard to support this change of narrative.
“What we don’t hear as much about is the opportunities and the potential for social media to actually be a protective factor,” he said.
Associate Professor Robinson and Mr Cooper are part of a team of researchers who developed the original guidelines and approaches to talking about suicide.
Consulting with a variety of experts and lived experience consultants, the research team developed a social media campaign that would reach young people where they were: online.
The campaign addressed issues of permanency on social media, how to reach out to peers that may be in distress, and how to remember those who have passed in a way that is safe and supportive
“We’re providing advice to young people around things to think about before they post anything online about suicide… it’s really encouraging young people to understand the permanency of posting anything online,” Mr Cooper said.
Any content published online has the potential to be triggering to vulnerable people or start conversations between peers.
How to have these difficult conversations and reach out to those who may be experiencing suicidal thoughts was a priority for the #chatsafe team.
“We took different sections of the guidelines and brought them to life as a social media campaign which then rolled out across Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat,” said Associate Professor Robinson.
The campaign reached millions of people across the country, with positive feedback flooding in from users.
“The evaluation that the team has run looked at behaviour change, stigma reduction, and the young person’s confidence and willingness to reach out to others,” said Mr Cooper.
“The #chatsafe content really equipped them to feel safe talking about suicide on social media, and that it was beneficial both online and offline as well,” said Associate Professor Robinson.
#Chatsafe is now utilised across the globe, with Facebook sponsoring its translation into numerous languages.
Associate Professor Robinson puts the success down to the involvement of young people themselves.
Central to the development of #chatsafe was asking what young people need and want.
Emily Unity stresses the importance of co-design when it comes to youth mental health and allowing young people to control the outcomes rather than clinicians.
“A lot of suicide prevention initiatives expect young people to sort of fit into one model of care… and in an online space when developing technology, I feel like it’s really given the reins over to us,” she said.
As the mental health sector develops, the involvement of lived experience and personalised tools is becoming more and more prominent, and people like Emily are finally being heard.
“Nothing about us without us.”
If anything in this article has been triggering or impacted your mental health, please reach out to one of the following services: