The De Montfort digital detox & what we can learn by switching off social media

The idea of a social media detox has grown in popularity recently. But could you imagine a university going dark and turning off social media entirely for nearly a week?

One institution did exactly that.

In January this year, De Montfort University in the UK took the unprecedented step to switch off all its social media channels to encourage its students to try their own ‘digital detox' and to draw attention to the impact of social media on mental health.

The Vice-Chancellor, Dominic Shellard, kick-started the initiative by turning off his own highly active twitter account and by promoting the idea from the top.

The reasons for backing the idea were clear.

"In conversations I've had with students, I've been really struck by the degree to which their over-engagement on social media is having a negative impact on their mental health," said Professor Shellard.

"A complete detox may not be for everyone. Social media is addictive, so, like any addiction, the habit is hard to break and going cold turkey could actually have damaging effects. But by just becoming more aware of the time spent on social media there could be a positive change in many."

The benefits of a "digital detox" for the individual and institution

"From an individual perspective, hundreds of students backed the idea and found that the extra space it gave them both in terms of time and headspace was beneficial," said Chris Thundow, DMU's Press and PR manager.

Lee Hadlington, associate professor in cyber-psychology, added: "The key benefit of doing a digital detox is that it will highlight to people just how much time they spend on social media and perhaps provoke them to ask why."

"This gives people the chance to explore what sort of things they are missing out on when they are engaged in social media and will encourage them to engage with people face to face."

And the institution didn't suffer from this experiment nor did they have to concede ground to its competitors. Communications didn't collapse. Students didn't complain. And social media didn't explode afterward.

In fact, the social media downtime provided the space for the marketing team to focus on other important channels and strategic thinking. And ironically, by being the first to experiment with a social media switch-off, the institution benefited from a healthy volume of positive coverage on sites such as the BBC.

The role of digital channels to promote social well-being

More students than ever are reporting mental health conditions. And the perceptions of their university's mental health services can impact whether they actively seek support.

Having well-advertised and robust services undoubtedly lead to higher disclosure rates and better continuation rates. But what role can digital play in supporting the range of beneficial human interventions for students?

We've discovered that technology is already playing a role in the wellbeing agenda.

This year, for example, Leeds Beckett University commissioned digital mental health pioneer XenZone, to provide Kooth Student, a free and anonymous online mental health and emotional wellbeing support service to its 28,000 students.

The service, which is part of Leeds Beckett University's broader student support package, has been introduced in recognition of the pressures faced by today's students and the increased demand for mental health support across UK universities.

Kooth Student provides online, evidence-based tools, for students to support their mental health, as well as giving them access to experienced counselors who are available in and out of term-time.

Priscilla Preston, Director of Student Services, said, "Students often seek support out-of-hours and at weekends and we are delighted to be able to offer this service to our students alongside our campus-based face-to-face and online services."

At Nottingham Trent University a dashboard generates an alert if a student doesn't engage for 14 consecutive days, enabling tutors to follow up with them.

And the University of Greenwich is expanding its learning analytics system to cover mental wellbeing. Similarly, Jisc, the membership organization that provides digital solutions for UK education and research, has a learning analytics service which went live last year and currently has 26 institutions subscribed.

Online support services and apps provide further examples of technology's role in supporting students' wellbeing. Brad Miller is an undergraduate at Ravensbourne University London and had this to say.

"With the pressure of keeping up with social media where people portray their 'best lives', technology doesn't always impact positively on young people's mental health."

This is something that companies like Instagram are acutely aware of and we covered the imminent changes to the likes system in our social media round-up here.

We also talked recently about Chatbots (you can read about it here) and the powerful support they can offer recruitment teams. At Bolton College, a Chatbot called Ada has in-built triggers to respond to students struggling with stress to point them to useful resources and to put them in touch with the mental health team. The team is also notified automatically when students are seeking further advice and support on these matters.

The future of digital and wellness support

Meaningful support tends to come from human beings, but technology such as learning analytics, chatbot services, and other digital tools can certainly help with interventions. They can locate mental health issues early, and where the information is used intelligently, technology can help universities identify people who need support.

It seems there is a great deal of untapped potential in this space and at TerminalFour we think the role of technology in helping to tackle mental health issues will continue to grow.

But where do you see the most potential for digital in supporting students and promoting wellbeing? And does your institution have any digital initiatives to support students in this way?