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Safe space

Researchers are placing the views and experiences of young people at the heart of policy, making the internet a safer place

In the early hours, a teenage girl falls in and out of sleep. As she drifts off, whispers from across her bedroom summon the girl back to consciousness and she feels compelled to reach out and answer them. Each conversation feeds another, and the silence never lasts long enough to satisfy her craving for rest.

Substitute text alerts, emails, pop-ups and chat notifications for ‘whispers’, and this scene acts as a powerful metaphor for how digital experiences can affect the wellbeing of young people.

It’s a scenario familiar to many teenagers, and one which Dr Elvira Perez Vallejos has used to spark debate among young people, informing her research and in turn having real impact with policymakers drawing up legislation to make the online world fairer and safer.

Dr Vallejos, a psychologist who works in the space where mental health meets the digital economy, says: “My passion and my focus is placing people with lived experiences at the centre of my research and then making sure technology provides a safe and respectful place.”

She uses youth juries – structured workshops where 16 to 25 year olds explore ideas about their rights online and the future of the internet – to co-create scenarios, enacted by professional actors, such as the sleepy teenager unable to disregard her updates.

These fuel discussion and provide the researchers with rich insights from a group who are perhaps most affected by the relentless growth of our online lives, yet whose views are least represented in policy.

Their responses provide unprecedented data for Dr Vallejos’ research. She said: “From the outset we were asking: how will our research address the evidence needs of policymakers, how can it translate to policy?”

The youth juries were funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) as part of the CaSMa project, a collaborative research project between the universities of Nottingham and Leeds and the 5Rights Foundation that put the experience of internet user at the heart of studies to understand conditions for online consent. This project attracted additional funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) to collaborate with Oxford and Edinburgh universities to study how algorithms inform our online experience (UnBias project) and to test new and responsible technological solutions for online platforms to regain user trust (ReEnTrust project).

Dr Vallejos is based at the University’s Institute for Mental Health and is part of a multi-disciplinary team of researchers at Horizon, Nottingham’s centre for digital economy research. Its director Professor McAuly says: “As independent experts, we have a responsibility to society to engage with decision-makers who set goals, make rules and prepare guidelines.”

From the outset we were asking: how will our research address the evidence needs of policymakers, how can it translate to policy?
Dr Elvira Perez Vallejos

This ethos yields impressive impact in the policy arena. With her Horizon colleagues, Dr Vallejos has:

  • contributed to the implementation of the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and specifically the UK Data Protection Bill (September 2017)
  • provided evidence to support Baroness Beeban Kidron’s amendments to the Bill, introducing the ‘Age Appropriate Design Code’ – subsequently adopted by the Government (clauses 123-126 of the Bill)
  • submitted evidence to the Children and the Internet Parliamentary inquiry, which fed into the House of Lords report, Growing up with the Internet
  • informed the Fake News and Algorithms in Decision-making Parliamentary inquiry submitted evidence to the Mental Health and Social Media Parliamentary inquiry (September 2017)
  • answered the Information Commissioner’s Office call for Age Appropriate Design Code
  • The youth jury findings were also cited in a European Parliament study on the future of science and technology

In April this year the UK Government announced the world’s first legislation on ‘online harms’. It highlighted the valuable contribution of 5Rights, a foundation founded by Baroness Kidron to lobby for the rights of young people online, which works with Dr Vallejos on the youth juries and cites her findings.

“I’ve accompanied Professor McAuley when he gives evidence to select committees and three of four times I’ve had round table consultations in the House of Lords where I’ve been asked to contribute to specific papers and "reports", adds Dr Vallejos.

“It’s exciting and it is rewarding to have such significance attached to your work. I’ve moved from basic to translational to applied research and it’s applied research that I find to be the most rewarding.”

Dr Perez Vallejos is now Deputy Director of eNurture (enurture.org.uk), a UK Research and Innovation mental health network focusing on the digital impact on children’s wellbeing.

“Another of my networks is the EPSRC-funded Human Data Interaction, hdi-network.org, where I lead the theme of mental health. We look at funding research projects and a key criteria is policy impact, while embedding responsible innovation and ethics. I feel like I’m influencing the future landscape of digital mental health.”

Elvira Perez Vallejos

Dr Elvira Perez Vallejos is Associate Professor of Digital Technology at the National Institute of Health Research Biomedical Research Centre, Institute of Mental Health. She collaborates with Horizon to investigate the risks and opportunities that the digital world offers to our mental wellbeing.

Vision magazine front cover - Issue 4, Autumn 2019

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