The Nurture Network: Promoting Young People's Mental Health in a Digital World

Lead Research Organisation: University of Cambridge
Department Name: Faculty of Education


Promoting improved understanding of how children's daily lives are influenced by the digital world that now surrounds them and how they experience family, peer and school life as a result represents a substantial challenge and opportunity relative to facilitating positive mental health and development for children and young people. Historically, researchers have emphasised the role of supportive parenting and positive school experiences (including peer relationships) as primary social environmental influences on children's mental health, with most interventions targeting family and school-based influences aimed at remediating poor mental health outcomes for children and young people. It is increasingly recognised that the digital environment constitutes a new dimension or common denominator to these traditional agencies of socialisation influence on children's mental health. Yet, little progress has been made in equipping parents, teachers and the professional agencies that work with families and schools with new knowledge that harnesses potential strengths while offering protection from substantial risks posed to children by the digital world. How do we equip parents, teachers, practitioners, policy makers and youth themselves with information, support and resources that promotes positive mental health in a contemporary (and future) digital age? Addressing this core challenge represents the primary objective of our multi-disciplinary e-Nurture network. While significant advances have been made in relation to highlighting and understanding the genetic and biological underpinnings of poor mental health and mental health disorders in recent years, it is recognised that the social environments children experience and interact with remain a substantial influence on their positive and negative mental health trajectories (even when genetic factors are considered). Three primary areas of social environmental influence on children's mental health have dominated past research and practice in this area. First, family socialisation processes, specifically parenting practices are recognised as a substantive influence on children's mental health. Second, peer influences are noted as an important influence on children's mental health. Third, school-based factors are recognised as a further influence on children's mental health and development. Increasingly, the digital environment is recognised as a factor that both infuses traditional agencies of socialisation for children and that can influence children directly. Policy makers have recently directed significant attention to the prevalence rates and support needs among children and young people who experience mental health problems. The digital environment and its potential for positive and negative influences on children's well-being, mental health and development has also received substantial research, policy and media attention. Building on this policy platform, the primary objectives of our network are to (1) explore how the digital environment has changed the ways in which children experience and interact with family, school and peer-based influences and what these changes mean for children's mental health, (2) identify how we can recognise and disentangle digital risks from opportunities when working with families, schools and professional agencies in developing intervention programmes to improve mental health outcomes for children and young people, and (3) identify how we effectively incorporate and disseminate this new knowledge to engage present and future practice models and the design and development of digital platforms and interventions aimed at promoting mental health and reducing negative mental health trajectories for young people. The network will engage a collaborative, cross sectoral approach to facilitating impacts by directly engaging academic, charity, industry, policy and front-line beneficiaries (e.g. families, parents, schools, teachers, children and young people).

Planned Impact

The core objective of the e-Nurture network is to engage a broad array of academic, practice, policy and other relevant stakeholders to promote greater direct and knowledge-led engagement with families, schools and peer-group engaged agencies to facilitate improved mental health outcomes for children and young people. While many research projects purport impacts, partnership and engagement in delivering the lessons of research to practice and policy contexts, few groupings actually set out to broker this partnership from the outset. Our network is broad in partnership scope and intentionally inclusive of contributors that span multiple disciplinary and practice domains. While all contributors have an interest in youth and mental health, specific areas of expertise offer a complement that joins professional boundaries in a way that a standard research project could not facilitate. Through structured collaboration across academic, practice, policy, youth-led community groups, PPI members, industry and charitable organisational domains, we will operate across disciplinary boundaries to advance a knowledge-led model that generates new impacts and that stimulates future research and further impact opportunities. We aim to put in place a strategy to ensure that partners and those working at the front line of practice and policy relating to family, school and peer influences on children are in a position to use new knowledge generated by our core and network plus activities. We will utilize the complementary skills and extensive track records of the network Leadership Team, Advisory Board and extensive Partner Network profile spanning academic, practice, policy, industry, charity, education, family and child/young person domains. This will allow us to develop a greater understanding of the positive and negative influences of the digital environment for children through their experiences of family, school, peer and wider social influences on their well-being and mental health. It will also help shape thinking about how best to harness the digital environment to facilitate effective interventions to prevent and treat mental disorders, working together with family, school and peer front-line practitioners, charities and agencies. The network will stimulate significant outreach and dissemination through its Leadership Team, Advisory Board and Partners. We bridge academic (world-leading researchers and practitioners), practice (e.g. ACAMH), charity (e.g. NSPCC, Barnardos), policy (e.g. Office of the Children's Commissioner; UK Government departments) and education sectors (e.g. Place2Be), engaging with major industry partners (e.g. Facebook, Instagram, Disney, BBC and others). This will allow us to promote previously under-explored knowledge-based implementation and impact synergies. Fundamentally, this will lead to greater knowledge and access to information, resources and supports that promote the role of families, schools and other agencies (e.g. peer-based advocacy groups) in helping to stimulate positive mental health outcomes and trajectories for children and young people. Several core groupings spanning academic, practice/policy domains, families/schools/charities, as well as future generations of researchers, practitioners and policy advocates will benefit from the products of this network, its partnerships and planned activities. This will be facilitated through targeted and integrated activities that will cut-across all areas of impact relevance and will be embedded in activities from the outset of the network. Academic knowledge exchange and impacts will be facilitated through regular meetings, webinars and network linked workshops, seminar and conference events, as well as submission of academic manuscripts, blogs and media engagement.


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Related Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Award Value
ES/S004467/1 01/09/2018 30/06/2020 £1,020,390
ES/S004467/2 Transfer ES/S004467/1 01/07/2020 31/08/2022 £799,660