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Behind the research: Lizzy Winstone

Lizzy Winstone, a PhD student at Bristol University, shares her experience of working in public health research.

What are your main research interests?

I am a mixed methods researcher with a particular interest in survey methodology. I am interested in mental health and well-being, young people, social connectedness, cyberpsychology, social psychology and health inequalities.

Can you tell me about your work with the NIHR School for Public Health Research?

I’m about to start the third year of my mixed methods PhD exploring the complex relationship between social media use and the mental health and well-being of 13-15-year-olds in South West England. The study aims to move beyond traditional measures of social media screen-time to explore how different types of social media use relate to different mental health outcomes; exploring the role of school, family and peer connectedness. I have conducted qualitative interviews with 13-14-year-olds (Year 9) and set up a cohort survey following a sample of approximately 2,500 students from October 2019 (when they were starting Year 9) to October 2020 (in Year 10). The findings from the qualitative work will be compared with the longitudinal survey findings to provide a rich understanding of social media use and teenage mental health.

As the COVID-19 pandemic hit in between the two planned survey waves, we were fortunate to have baseline mental health data for around 2,000 13-14-year-olds and were able to follow up with participants to see how they were coping during lockdown. We were surprised to find that overall levels of anxiety had gone down for this group while schools were closed, with improved well-being and feelings of school connectedness – in particular for those students with poor mental health pre-pandemic.

What impact has this research had?

It was really interesting to see some improvements in mental health during lockdown for this particular age group, and our research received a lot of press coverage. The findings were shared widely with charities, public health practitioners and schools, many of whom reported finding the insight helpful in planning for the return of students in September 2020. The report highlighted the importance of managing stressors within the school environment including academic pressure and conflict with peers.

What made you decide to have a career in public health research?

Having worked for a while on broad methodological topics, I was keen to do something more applied. Public health research provides a great opportunity to learn and apply different methodological approaches to understand and try to solve real-world problems.

What has been the highlight of your research career?

It was really rewarding to see our research appear in the press and I received lots of excitable messages from friends and family!

Another major highlight has been meeting and talking to 13-14-year-olds for the qualitative part of my PhD. Survey research can sometimes feel slightly detached from the participants so having the opportunity to work so closely with teenagers through in-depth interviews has really opened my eyes to their experiences of adolescence in the era of social media. They were really fun to work with and they shared some impressive insights.

What advice would you give to someone considering a career in public health research?

I would say not to feel put off by coming from a particular discipline. To me, one of the best things about public health research is the cross-disciplinary nature of it. So far, I’ve worked with experts in and cited relevant research from public mental health, epidemiology, psychiatry, social psychology, behavioural genetics, communications research, geography, medicine and more. There are so many different fields that can contribute to enhancing the understanding of an issue, and public health research really benefits from this. There are also so many opportunities for collaborations outside of academia including schools, charities and government departments and the ability for research to have a meaningful impact on policy.


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