Can digital mental health interventions bridge the ‘digital divide’ for socioeconomically and digitally marginalised youth? A new systematic review

Reference: Piers, R., Williams, J. M., & Sharpe, H. (2023). Can digital mental health interventions bridge the ‘digital divide’ for socioeconomically and digitally marginalised youth? A systematic review. Child and Adolescent Mental Health, 28(1), 90–104.

Summarized By: Ariel Ervin

About this Study

Many youth don’t receive treatment for their mental health problems. This ongoing issue is especially concerning for socioeconomically disadvantaged youth, who are at an elevated risk of developing mental health issues. Evidence shows that socioeconomic deprivation correlates with lower mental health literacy, increased mental health stigma, and negative attitudes about seeking help. Digital mental health interventions (DMHIs) can potentially promote treatment accessibility and help-seeking behaviors. However, despite how promising this approach is, there is a lack of research on mental health interventions (including digital ones) for underrepresented populations. This systematic review evaluates the effectiveness DMHIs have in closing the digital gap by assessing the acceptability, feasibility, and effectiveness of DMHIs in treating socioeconomically and digitally marginalized youth.

Key Findings:

  • Although the findings demonstrate some evidence that DMHIs improve the mental health of digitally diverse marginalized populations, their generalizability beyond the studies included in the review is unclear.  
  • Qualitative findings supported quantitative results, indicating promising results for engagement, acceptability, and feasibility of DMHIs for marginalized youth.
  • The heterogeneity of the included studies indicates that DMHIs can work across various technologies for various outcomes and functions with different levels of practitioner involvement. 
  • There are concerns that digital approaches reinforce digital and social inequalities since it’s unclear how many DMHI-related studies outside this review account for digital and socioeconomic marginalization, underscoring the need to incorporate evidence-based digital inclusion strategies.   
  • While the evidence indicates that DMHIs can effectively improve mental health outcomes, more high-quality research, particularly randomized controlled trials (RCTs), is needed to confirm their ability to bridge the digital divide.

Implications for Mentoring

This systematic review represents a step forward in researchers’ and practitioners’ understanding of DMHIs for marginalized youth. However, while it highlights the potential DMHIs have in addressing the mental health issues of digitally and socioeconomically marginalized youth, it also emphasizes the need for more comprehensive research to examine this approach. To determine the effectiveness of DMHIs in closing the digital gap, people need to acknowledge that the digital divide cannot be an afterthought in mental health research. Co-designing with marginalized communities is vital in ensuring true digital inclusion. Similarly, utilizing a multidisciplinary and intersectional approach can make it easier for people to understand the complex dynamics of these inequalities.   

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