Children, young people & families, Public mental health programme
University of Bristol
Lizzy is 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.
What has been your career journey so far?
My undergraduate degree in Social Psychology sparked an interest in individual and group attitudes and related behaviour, as well as the process of designing and conducting research more broadly. I completed my MSc in Social Research Methods at the London School of Economics and Political Science, before working as a researcher in public health and social care for a local authority. This involved a variety of short projects to assess the needs of specific local populations, including adults with learning disabilities and unpaid carers. Before starting my PhD I worked for several years as a survey methodologist for the European Social Survey, a cross-sectional general attitudes survey conducted every two years in more than 20 countries. Based at City University London, I specialised in questionnaire design, (cross-national) equivalence, survey non-response and survey project management – all of which have come in handy during my PhD!
Why did you choose to do a PhD in public health research?
After working for a long time on methodological topics, I was keen to get to grips with something more applied and I missed working on public health issues. The European Social Survey gave me more confidence in my research skills. The focus of the questionnaires I helped to design changed regularly, from democracy, justice, welfare and environmental attitudes to personal and social well-being and public health. I realised that the health-related topics were what really interested me. I feel that public health is a meaningful field in which your research can make a positive impact.
What is your research focused on?
My research focuses on how young people engage with their peers, family and the wider public through social media, and whether this is determined by, or has an impact on their mental health. I am exploring whether it is ‘healthier’ (in terms of self-harm, depression, anxiety and well-being) to use social media passively compared to using it for communicating with friends or to share content and express one’s identity. I am also focusing on how social media use more generally predicts how connected young people feel to their peers, family and school.
Why is it important?
The past decade has seen a decline in the mental health of young people, with rates of self-harm, anxiety and depression rising in particular among teenage girls. Although reasons for this are likely to be complex and involve many different factors, the introduction and explosion in social media use over the same time frame make it worthy of investigation. A lot of research currently focuses on whether social media screen-time in itself has an impact on mental health. I think it is important to move away from the narrative that all social media is unhealthy and to consider that not all social media activities are equal. For example, many teenagers have had to rely on social media to communicate with their peers during ‘lockdown’. It’s important to recognise that ‘social media use’ is about keeping in touch with friends as well as scrolling through images portraying unrealistic idealised lives of others. Focusing too much on simplistic measures of social media use and imposing parental restrictions to screen-time risks alienating a generation for whom social media is an essential communication tool. A more nuanced approach to guidance on healthy social media use is more likely to be embraced by young people and thus more effective.
What do you like about being a part of the NIHR School for Public Health Research?
It’s great to feel part of a group investigating such a broad range of public health issues. The SPHR Annual Scientific Meeting provides an opportunity for PhD students to share our work with and hear from leading experts in the field. I’ve met and worked with other PhD students all over the country and feel lucky to have benefitted from the advice of senior public health academics at different member institutions.
What skills have you learnt and/or are hoping to learn as part of your PhD?
It’s been great to attend several short courses offered by the Bristol Medical School and the Bristol Doctoral College, from designing posters and presenting with confidence to an introduction to Stata and causal inference. Other great training opportunities (such as qualitative interviews and analysis) have included courses from the University of Oxford, Social Research Association and National School of Research Methods. I’ve had to learn some new statistical methods such as Latent Class Analysis and Structural Equation Modelling for the quantitative part of my PhD and am getting to grips with managing codes in NVivo for my qualitative analysis. I’ve really enjoyed having plenty of opportunities to present to a wide range of audiences, which has increased my confidence in public speaking. Now that I have more results to share, I’m looking forward to learning how to communicate these in different formats, such as policy briefings or blogs.
What do you hope to do after completing your PhD?
I’ve enjoyed my PhD so much I’d love to continue research in the same field if at all possible. The dataset from my survey includes so much more than the analysis for my PhD, so it would be amazing to be able to do further work with some of the other variables. I’ve really enjoyed meeting and working with the teenagers involved in my research so it would also be great to continue to be involved in some way with schools and young people.