Background: Young people frequently make use of the internet as part of their day-to-day activities, and this has extended to their help-seeking behavior. Offline help-seeking is known to be impeded by a number of barriers including stigma and a preference for self-reliance. Online help-seeking may offer an additional domain where young people can seek help for mental health difficulties without being encumbered by these same barriers.
Objective: The objective of this systematic literature review was to examine young peoples' online help-seeking behaviors for mental health concerns. It aimed to summarize young peoples' experiences and identify benefits and limitations of online help-seeking for this age group. It also examined the theoretical perspectives that have been applied to understand online help-seeking.
Methods: A systematic review of peer-reviewed research papers from the following major electronic databases was conducted: PsycINFO, Cumulative Index of Nursing and Allied Health Literature, PubMed, Cochrane Library, Association for Computing Machinery Digital Library, and Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Xplore. The Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses guidelines were followed. The search was conducted in August 2017. The narrative synthesis approach to reviews was used to analyze the existing evidence to answer the review questions.
Results: Overall, 28 studies were included. The most common method of data collection was through the use of surveys. Study quality was moderate to strong. Text-based query via an internet search engine was the most commonly identified help-seeking approach. Social media, government or charity websites, live chat, instant messaging, and online communities were also used. Key benefits included anonymity and privacy, immediacy, ease of access, inclusivity, the ability to connect with others and share experiences, and a greater sense of control over the help-seeking journey. Online help-seeking has the potential to meet the needs of those with a preference for self-reliance or act as a gateway to further help-seeking. Barriers to help-seeking included a lack of mental health literacy, concerns about privacy and confidentiality, and uncertainty about the trustworthiness of online resources. Until now, there has been limited development and use of theoretical models to guide research on online help-seeking.
Conclusions: Approaches to improving help-seeking by young people should consider the role of the internet and online resources as an adjunct to offline help-seeking. This review identifies opportunities and challenges in this space. It highlights the limited use of theoretical frameworks to help conceptualize online help-seeking. Self-determination theory and the help-seeking model provide promising starting points for the development of online help-seeking theories. This review discusses the use of these theories to conceptualize online help-seeking and identify key motivations and tensions that may arise when young people seek help online.
Keywords: help-seeking behavior; internet; mental health; online behavior; self-determination theory; systematic review; youth.
©Claudette Pretorius, Derek Chambers, David Coyle. Originally published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research (http://www.jmir.org), 19.11.2019.