1). Please tell us a little about yourself
My name is Brad Ridout and I’m a Senior Lecturer in Cyberpsychology in the discipline of Biomedical Informatics and Digital Health at the University of Sydney. As Deputy Chair of the Cyberpsychology Research Group, my main research focus is developing evidence-based digital mental health treatments using social media, virtual reality and other digital health technologies. In my clinical work as a psychologist, I’ve specialised in the treatment of anxiety and depression, with a particular interest in how consumer technology can impact the psychological well-being of children and adolescents (for better not just for worse!)
2). Tell us about your research…
Cyberpsychology is an exciting and diverse field of research that encompasses all psychological phenomena associated with emerging consumer technologies, in particular their impact on human behaviour, mental health and well-being. This ranges from virtual reality and internet-based interventions to support well-being, to problematic internet use and the impact of online scams on mental health. Our research is also highly interdisciplinary, so I’ve been fortunate to lead and be involved in a wide variety of digital health projects, collaborating with experts in computer science, adolescent medicine, implementation science, and cybersecurity, among others.
My main focus for the past couple of years has been developing and evaluating an online social network to support youth mental health called ‘My Circle’ in partnership with Kids Helpline. This research was supported by a $1 million grant from the Bupa Health Foundation. Based on familiar social media platforms like Facebook, My Circle provides safe and accessible mental health support for young people at risk of suicide, self-harm and other emotional well-being issues, by connecting them to supportive anonymous online communities of peers experiencing similar challenges, moderated and supported by Kids Helpline counsellors. It also offers an online program of group psychoeducation modules around topics such as anxiety, depression, bullying, and family conflict.
I’ve also recently partnered with the Emergency Department at Westmead Hospital to build the evidence-base for the use of immersive virtual reality experiences to address adolescent distress while enduring long waits in emergency. Following a successful feasibility study, we are working towards a larger scale implementation-focused trial that will develop resources for a sustainable roll-out to Emergency Departments across the country.
3). What are the real-world consequences of your research?
Working with industry partners, NGOs and government organisations has meant that we get to see the real-world translation and impact of our digital health research quicker than in some other fields of research. Since launching, Kids Helpline’s My Circle has supported the mental health and well-being of over 5,000 young Australians, and we’ve received heart-warming feedback from clients about the positive impact this service has had on their lives, such as making them feel less alone in their struggles. This kind of meaningful impact makes me very proud to be working in the fast-paced research field of cyberpsychology.
The participatory action research approach we took to My Circle, which incorporates ongoing feedback from young people at each stage of development, has allowed us to continually improve the design, usability, and efficacy of the service, as well as pivot quickly to meet their changing needs. For example, Kids Helpline were able to scale-up the service to meet increased demand when COVID-19 hit, and develop modules and online spaces that specifically addressed the issues for which young people were seeking support at that time.
Another good example is a world-first scoping study into the impact and experiences of social media by young people in conflict-affected areas of Myanmar, which I led in partnership with Save The Children International. The widespread emotional and mental health issues among Myanmar youth uncovered in this study are now being addressed through cost-effective and timely digital mental health support via social media tools.
4). What does digital health mean to you?
I say this a lot, but to me a digital health innovation is like a state-of-the-art coffee machine – the outcome is only as good as the beans you put in! It’s no good using the latest technology if the heart of the innovation is not based on sound theory and properly evaluated to ensure that it actually works for both clients and clinicians. This is particularly the case with mental health interventions. Just because something works face-to-face doesn’t mean it will translate to the online environment – the evidence-base needs to be built from scratch, with researchers and clinicians working closely with end-users to ensure that interventions meet their needs, and mostly importantly lead to positive long-term outcomes.
As a cyberpsychologist, I’m particularly passionate about the potential for digital technologies to deliver mental health support and help address the barriers to qualified treatment young people face, such as cost, stigma, accessibility, and poor mental health literacy. We know that young people are increasingly going online to find information and support, so there is an urgent need to ensure that when they do, they have access to qualified mental health professionals who can either deliver evidence-based online interventions or link them to traditional services.
5). Do you have any resources or links you would like to share?