SIF196 Grand Challenge Research Investment Phase 2: Digital Technology and Youth Development Initiative

Project Manager: Megan Barnett, Bethany Teachman and Nancy Deutsch

Approved: Fall 2023

Project Dates: 1/1/2024 – 12/31/2028

Total Funding: $7,500,000

Executive Summary

Youth have been experiencing a devastating rise in rates of anxiety, depression, and other mental and behavioral health difficulties, with the Surgeon General describing mental health as “the defining public health crisis of our time.” Social media and the associated reliance on digital technologies have often been blamed as the primary culprit for youth’s distress, but many questions remain about technology’s true causal role. We need to better understand how and when digital technology is contributing to the development of youth’s behavioral and mental health challenges. It has been hard to get good data, and so a health crisis that desperately needs to be addressed using rigorous science currently involves far too much guesswork.

Paired with this urgent need for mental and behavioral health services is a massive gap in access to quality in-person care. Digital technologies are not only part of the problem – they can and should be part of the solution. Digital technologies can be leveraged to provide evidence- based training and professional support to leaders of youth-serving organizations and youth mental health professionals. More broadly, digital interventions based on strong research and tailored to meet personal needs can greatly increase access to care. Doing this work requires an interdisciplinary team that has ready access to the expertise and technology needed to build effective programs, and which can differentiate highly vs. less effective (or even harmful) digital approaches to support mental health among youth.

For too long we have had antagonistic approaches, with one camp focused on digital technologies as the enemy for youth mental health while another camp focused on these technologies as the solution. This is a false dichotomy. UVA is poised to move the field from fear to facts to fixes. We propose a coordinated, interdisciplinary research and training collaborative that will move us away from fear of digital technologies to understanding how youth (aged 10-25) use digital technologies, and which types of use and behaviors improve vs. worsen mental and behavioral health. In turn, this Grand Challenge investment will make UVA a national leader in digital technology research and interventions guided by cutting-edge science.

Building on UVA’s existing expertise, infrastructure, and foundational research, this Grand Challenge investment can transform understanding of the real impact of digital technologies on youth mental health and move digital technology solutions that address the crisis along the pipeline from development and evaluation to implementation and dissemination.

We will support researchers across the university at all levels to increase their capacity for innovative, impactful research on digital technologies and youth mental health by inviting them to:

  • Apply for a seed grant
  • Get training in digital technology research methods
  • Mentor a funded postdoc
  • Attend conferences & events
  • Connect with community & industry partners
  • Learn from a youth advisory board
  • Get support applying for extramural grants

Current Status: Award in Progress