Are smartphones damaging young people’s mental health?

by Stacey Dingwall

Last week saw the launch of Universities UK’s #stepchange campaign – a framework that aims to help universities support the mental wellbeing of their student populations. In their case for action as to why the framework was needed, the organisation noted that recent years have seen an increase in the number of student suicides in the UK and the US, as well as an increase in the number of students reporting mental health issues.

Both countries rank in the top 10 in terms of smartphone users across the world, with close to 70% of each country’s population being smartphone owners. And within that percentage, 18-24 year olds are the highest using age group.

Smartphone dependence and its impact

Earlier this year, the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) released a report that looked at the impact that the ubiquity of smartphones is having on young people’s mental health, focusing on their social media activity. Some of the headline figures from the report include the fact that over 90% of the 16-24 age group use the internet for social media, primarily via their phones. It is also noted that the number of people with at least one social media profile increased from 22% to 89% between 2007 and 2016. Also on the increase? The number of people experiencing mental health issues including anxiety and depression.

Can rising anxiety and depression rates really be linked to increased internet and smartphone use? The RSPH report notes that social media use has been linked to both, alongside having a detrimental impact on sleeping patterns, due to the blue light emitted by smartphones. This point came from a study carried out at Harvard, which looked at the impact of artificial lighting on circadian rhythms. While the study focused on the link between exposure to light at night and conditions including diabetes, it also noted an impact on sleep duration and melatonin secretion – both of which are linked to inducing depressive symptoms.

So what’s the answer? Smartphones aren’t going away anytime soon, as seen in the excitement that greets every new edition of the iPhone, a decade on from its launch. With children now being as young as 10 when they receive their first smartphone, parents obviously have a role in moderating use. This inevitably becomes more difficult as children grow up, however, and factors such as peer pressure come into play. And it’s also worth acknowledging that heavy smartphone use isn’t restricted to the younger generation – their parents are just as addicted as they are.

Supporting children and young people

In February Childline released figures which stated that they carried out over 92,000 counselling sessions with children and young people about their mental health and wellbeing in 2015-16 – equivalent to one every 11 minutes. Although technology clearly has its impact – the helpline has also reported a significant increase in the number of sessions it carries out in relation to cyberbullying – the blame can’t be laid completely at its door. Although the world has gone through turbulent times in the past, it’s been well documented recently that today’s young people have it worse than their parents’ generation, particularly in terms of home ownership and job stability. Others have pointed towards a loss of community connections in society, and children spending less time outdoors than previous generations – not only due to devices that keep them indoors but also hypervigilant parents.

In fact, perhaps we hear more about mental health issues experienced by children and young people because smartphones and social media have given them an outlet to express their feelings – something previous generations didn’t have the ability to do. What we should be focusing on is how to respond to these expressions – something we’re still not getting right, despite countless reports and articles making recommendations to governments on how they can do better in this area.

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Science, technology and innovation: the impact of Brexit

Scientist working with a large cylinder-shaped piece of lab equipmentBy Steven McGinty

There have been many twists and turns in the Brexit story. The latest, has been Theresa’s May’s failed attempt to increase her parliamentary majority and gain a personal mandate for negotiating her own version of Brexit.

However, since the UK voted to leave the EU in June 2016, STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) researchers and professionals have consistently voiced their concerns over the potential negative impacts of Brexit, particularly in areas such as funding, collaboration and skills.

Prospect – a union for 50,000 scientists, engineers and technical specialists – has made it clear that they believe:

Science is an international endeavour and continued free movement of people is vitally important both to the public interest and the wider economy.”

Their research highlights that British participation in prestigious Europe-wide research projects could be under threat, such as the mission to find the ‘oldest ice’ in Antarctica and the European Space Agency’s project to develop the most ambitious satellite Earth observation programme.

The Financial Times also highlights that British researchers have been very successful at winning important grants from the European Research Council. As a result, the UK receives 15.5% of all EU science funding – a disproportionate return on the UK’s 12% contribution to the overall EU budget.

Professor Dr Carsten Welsch, an academic from Liverpool University, underlines how essential EU funding is to his work: “in some years as much as 80% of our funding has been sourced from the EU.

Figures from technology consultancy Digital Science suggest that leaving the EU could cost UK scientists £1bn per year.

Universities UK has also investigated the wider economic impacts of EU funding in the UK. In 2016, their research found that EU funding generates more than 19,000 jobs across the UK, adding £1.86 billion to the UK economy. Later research has also shown that international students and their visitors generate £25.8 billion in gross output for the UK economy. In addition, as a single group, they add £690 million to the UK retail industry.

What do the politicians say?

With their ‘Save our Scientists’ campaign, the Liberal Democrats have been outspoken in their support for continued scientific co-operation across Europe. Their 2017 General Election manifesto stated that they would underwrite funding for British partners in EU-funded projects such as Horizon 2020 – the largest ever EU Research and Innovation programme – worth nearly €80 billion in funding. It also promised to protect and raise the science budget by inflation, and stop cuts to medical research.

But the UK government has also made efforts to lessen the concerns of STEM researchers and professionals. Similarly, Chancellor Philip Hammond has guaranteed to underwrite EU funding won by UK organisations through programmes such as Horizon 2020, even if these projects continue after Brexit. On the 17th January, Prime Minister Theresa May outlined her 12 objectives for negotiating the UK’s exit from the EU. Within this speech, she stated that:

We will welcome agreement to continue to collaborate with our European partners on major science, research and technology initiatives, for example in space exploration, clean energy and medical technologies.”

Jo Johnson, Minister of State for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, has also tried to provide reassurance by emphasising the important role for science and innovation in the government’s industrial strategy. He has highlighted that the strategy includes £229 million of funding for a ‘world class’ materials research centre at the University of Manchester and a centre for excellence for life sciences. In addition, a new funding body will be created – UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) – which will bring together several funding councils to create a ‘loud and powerful’ voice for science.

The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee has also published a report arguing that positive steps should be taken to ensure UK science plays a significant role in the global economy. One idea put forward by the report is that:

The UK should offer to host – in partnership with governments and funding bodies from other countries – one or more new, large-scale international research facilities. This would be a bold move to signal the UK’s global standing in science.

International partners – David Johnston Research + Technology Park

At a recent innovation event in Glasgow, Carol Stewart, Business Development Manager of David Johnston Research and Technology Park, set out the thoughts of researchers and companies based at their innovative research park in Waterloo, Canada. Unsurprisingly, their key concern was restrictions on the free movement of labour, and the impact Brexit might have on the EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA).

However, Ms Stewart was positive that there would still be plenty of opportunities, noting that the UK and Canada has a relationship as part of the Commonwealth, and that London will still be regarded as a global technology hub.

Overcoming negative sentiment

One important concern is that there is widespread anecdotal evidence that EU nationals are feeling less welcome. Stories of researchers either leaving positions or citing Brexit as a reason for not taking up posts in the UK are becoming the norm. Anxieties caused by a lack of clarity over the long-term status of EU nationals and the complexities in obtaining permanent residency, can only be damaging to the UK’s reputation for international science.  As physicist and TV presenter Professor Brian Cox explains:

We have spent decades – centuries arguably – building a welcoming and open atmosphere in our universities and, crucially, presenting that image to an increasingly competitive world. We’ve been spectacularly successful; many of the world’s finest researchers and teachers have made the UK their home, in good faith. A few careless words have already damaged our carefully cultivated international reputation, however. I know of few, if any, international academics, from within or outside the EU, who are more comfortable in our country now than they were pre-referendum. This is a recipe for disaster.

With the latest election results, the UK is likely to go through a period of political instability. It will be important  that, regardless of political changes, the UK continues to exercise its role as a leader in science, technology and innovation. That not only means providing funding and facilities for research, but also rebuilding the UK’s reputation as a place where the very best scientists and innovators want to live and work.


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The economic impact of international students in the UK

by Stacey Dingwall

A key concern following Brexit has been the status of international students (and academics) in the UK. Going into the general election, Theresa May has declined calls from universities – and some of her most senior colleagues – to remove students from her government’s target to cut migration by “tens of thousands”.

International students in the UK

In 2014-15, 437,000 students came from overseas to study in the UK, making up 19% of all UK university registrations that year. In February, the Office for National Statistics released net migration statistics which showed that long-term immigration to the UK fell by a “statistically significant” 23% to 134,000 in the year ending September 2016 – the lowest estimate recorded in almost 15 years. The number of international students coming to study in the UK accounted for much of this decrease, at 41,000. The majority of this figure was made up by students from non-EU countries (31,000).

In January, HESA released figures on students enrolled in higher education in 2015-16 which indicated that the number of students coming to the UK from EU member states had increased by 2%. These figures were collected before Brexit, however, so it will be next year’s edition before any impact, if at all, can be identified. Figures from UCAS published at the end of March, however, indicate a 6% decrease in the number of university applications from EU students on the previous year.

The ONS migration figures also showed that students from Asian countries made up 68% of the estimated 87,000 non-EU citizens who came to study in the UK during that year. While the UK remains the second most popular destination for international students in the world, after the USA, this is a fall of 23,000 on the previous year.

An economic impact worth billions

So why are some of Mrs May’s most senior colleagues rebelling against her decision to maintain international students within her migration reduction quota? One major reason is clearly the economic benefits generated for the country by the students. In March this year, research conducted by Oxford Economics for Universities UK suggested that in 2014-15, on- and off-campus spending by international students, and their visitors, generated a knock-on impact worth £25.8 billion in gross output to the UK economy. The 2014-15 international student cohort accounted for £10.8 billion of UK export earnings that year.

Tuition fees account for £4.8 billion of the total figure. The research also found that spending by international students supported over 200,000 jobs in UK university towns and cities and that the economic activity and employment sustained by international students’ off campus spending generated £1 billion in tax revenues.

Conservative rebellion and public opinion

Conservative MP Anna Soubry has pointed out that the economic contribution of international students continues even after they have completed their studies, in the form of “goodwill towards our country”, which “ often results in business deals as well as improved international relations and understanding”. It would appear that the public shares her sentiments: a poll conducted by Comres following the publication of Universities UK’s research found that 74% of those asked would like to see the number of international students in the UK either maintained or increased, after being told of the economic benefits they generate.

Despite this, the Prime Minister’s only concession so far has been to allow the newly created Office for Students to publish separate figures on overseas students, although they will still be recorded as part of the overall migration figures.  It has been suggested that a potential Conservative backbench rebellion over the government’s decision to remove the House of Lords’ amendment to the Higher Education and Research Bill on the issue was only defused by the decision to call a snap election – although MPs from both the Conservative and opposition parties have vowed to continue to fight the government’s stance. The Independent has launched a campaign – Drop the Target – supported by Soubry, which is demanding answers from the government on why they are continuing with the policy, which they argue is economically and socially damaging to the country.


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