Optimising online cultural content to positively impact mental health in young people

Helen Adams, GLAM, University of Oxford, UK, Rebecca Sheriff, University of Oxford, UK, Clare Cooper-Hammond, Imagineear , United Kingdom


Museums and cultural spaces are increasingly being recognised by social and healthcare systems to offer positive benefits for mental health and wellbeing. However, there has been little research to date asking if and how online cultural content (OCC) also has a part to play. The situation brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic provided a unique opportunity to undertake research in this area due to several things happening at the same time – the closure of cultural venues, a surge in online activity, a spike in mental health problems (particularly among young people) and a reduction in support services. A joint project undertaken by museum and psychiatry staff at the University of Oxford in 2020 set out to find out what kinds of OCC offer mental health benefits and to understand why they are effective. Using systematic reviews, sector analysis, user surveys, interviews, and focus groups, the project not only sought to identify the neural mechanisms at play, but to put those findings into action. An intensive co-production sprint to embed learning led to a targeted intervention that was tested and evaluated in a medical experiment to measure responses relating to, for example, mood, dichotomous thinking, decision-making, self-esteem, empathy, and concentration. This session shares the process and results from the research, and provides evidence-based, practical guidance on creating digital content designed to combat anxiety and depression in young people.

Keywords: Culture, museum, online, COVID-19, mental health, wellbeing


Museums are good for you. It’s an accepted idea, but one that can be both difficult to articulate and quantify. The notion is bound up intrinsically with the very foundations of why museums exist; in 1683, Elias Ashmole, founder of Ashmolean Museum at the University of Oxford –  the oldest public museum in the UK – declared that such places are “very necessary to humane life, health, & the conveniences thereof.” (MacGregor, 1983). Our understanding of the idea is also largely informed by anecdotal evidence. Dodd and Jones (2014) concluded “there is considerable practice and innovation in museums around health and wellbeing but still much untapped potential and more to be done.”

Six years later and more has been done, with a variety of initiatives ranging from art therapy to object handling reminiscence sessions for dementia patients, from social prescribing schemes to training museum staff in autism awareness. What links so many of these projects is the focus on (1) the physical visit and accessibility and (2) specific target groups with pre-diagnosed mental health or developmental conditions (see Froggett 2011 and Chaterjee et al, 2017). But what about the mental health impact of the remote visit? What are the health benefits for those we know so little about beyond faceless Google Analytics data? The closure of museums during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 presented a unique opportunity to find out.

Background to the study

Even before the pandemic, the World Health Organisation estimated that 1 in 10 people globally suffer from a mental disorder (such as anxiety, depression, bipolar affective disorder, psychosis, and personality disorders) and it estimates that in low- and middle-income countries, up to 85% of people with mental health disorders receive no treatment. 

By April 2020, mental health and wellbeing had become a significant public health concern of the pandemic, not only increasing levels of anxiety, distress and trauma in the general adult population (Pierce et al, 2020), but compounding existing mental health problems at a time of reduced service provision. One of the biggest concerns, due to governmental “lockdown” restrictions enforced in many countries, was social isolation (Khan, 2020). At the same time, UNESCO reported in May 2020 that 90% of museums worldwide had closed. This led to a surge in online cultural content and initiatives by museums and other organisations to support access to cultural heritage and to sustain relationships with their audiences.

Painting called 'Despair' by Edward Munch in 1894 illustrative of mental health depicted in art.
Figure A: Edvard Munch, Despair (1894), Munch Museum, oil on canvas. MM.M.00513. Public domain via WikiCommons

The Online Active Community Engagement for Mental Health and Wellbeing (O-ACE) study was a rapid-response pilot funded by the University of Oxford. O-ACE set out to investigate how online cultural content (OCC) could be optimised for wellbeing and mental health, in particular anxiety and depression – the most common mental health problems. It was a collaboration between three Oxford University departments – the Ashmolean Museum, the Department of Psychiatry (part of the Medical Sciences Division) and the Oxford Internet Institute (a research and teaching centre dedicated to the social science of the Internet). The project also worked with an external design partner, Imagineear, to co-create an online intervention. The project ran from June 2020 to February 2021. The total project costs were £37,000 (50,627 USD) which were primarily used for a part-time project assistant, participant recruitment, the design consultancy fee and software to run the experiment.


The O-ACE study comprised a mixed method approach of successive research strands, each informing the next. The decision to focus on young people stemmed from analysis of the initial phase of research, as described below.

Systematic Review

Identifying and analysing trials targeted and evaluated to assess the impact of community interventions on common mental disorders (depression / anxiety) or quality of life for people aged 16+ in group settings within the wider arts, sports and leisure sector. The search was not restricted by year of publication, language or region.

Sector Scrape

An exploration of what kinds of OCC created by the heritage sector during the pandemic were proving engaging and impactful. This complemented the systematic review by drawing on “grey” literature such as blogs, articles and news reports. This component reported on 36 case studies with 10 deep-dive interviews with creators.

Baseline survey and follow-up survey

Our project defined OCC as web-based content produced by theatres, museums, art galleries, libraries, archives, built and natural heritage organisations. A cross-sectional online survey explored who was consuming OCC; how use of OCC had been impacted by COVID-19; if OCC was perceived as being helpful for mental health; and links between socio-economic and demographic factors and clinically significant identifiers of mental distress. A follow-up survey invited respondents back to explore how OCC could be optimised or improved to support mental health and wellbeing.

To be as inclusive as possible, the survey was open to anyone in the world aged 18 or over (16 or over in the UK). At the time that the survey was open (June to July 2020), museums in the UK were closed and social distancing was in place. There were 1056 respondents to the first survey, of whom 176 completed a follow-up survey. 

Interviews and focus groups

The survey results led us to focus our research on young people. Individual 60-90 minute sessions were conducted via Zoom with 13 participants aged 16-24 with varying mental health status. Sessions comprised verbal consent procedures, two interviewers and non-visible observers present. Interviewees were asked about activities they found helpful for their mental health in general, both online and offline, especially during COVID-19. They were then asked how they believed OCC could be optimised in a way to benefit their mental health and how this could be measured. 

The journey to build an intervention took a co-design (or “Participatory Design”) approach, working with focus groups of putative, potential or future end-users from our research pool. They helped identify problems, explore ideas and evaluate prototypes. Co-design has been applied in many different fields of design and has mutual benefits, from helping participants – especially from traditionally marginalised groups – feel empowered and motivated to engage (Magkafa and Newbutt, 2018), to helping designers themselves work more creatively than they would alone (Trischler et al, 2018).  

The Experiment

The intervention was tested in a randomised control trial, comparing its effect with the effect of a typical museum website (in this case, the Ashmolean Museum) in people aged 16-24. More than 400 eligible participants were randomly allocated to either of the two experiences, undertook periods of exposure to the online content, then completed self-report measures of mood, distress, and cognitive tasks over a period of a three-day intense intervention and a six-week follow up. The number of participants was chosen as being able to provide sufficient statistical power to detect effect, given assumed deviations in any one group. The results of this trial are yet to be published and are not covered in this paper. 

Image of a young person sat at a desk with the OACE intervention on their laptop.
Figure B: The O-ACE study used its research to build an online cultural intervention to test on young people suffering, or at risk, from mental health issues.

Note on Recruitment and Participation

Research participants were nearly all drawn from respondents to the initial survey. The aim of the project was not about reaching non-users but rather to gather rich detail from existing or lapsed audiences who do, or could, utilise museum content for mental health benefits. As such we decided to advertise the survey mainly through Ashmolean channels although we also reached out to patient groups and schools in England. 

We were genuinely amazed by the response to the survey, which had thirty questions, required a lengthy consent procedure, was hosted externally, and offered no incentive. Trackable links allowed us to see which promotional channels were the most successful. The highest proportion of respondents (30%) were recruited through an Ashmolean website intercept ad, where a modest CTR of 0.05% morphed into an astonishing 58% take up on the survey once people had read the preliminary information. The pop-up worked out at USD 0.08 per click – a bargain! A Facebook advert yielded the second highest number of clicks through to the survey (22%) and free advertising (organic sharing, newsletters, regular social media) accounted for 28%. The overall survey completion rate was high at 57% (B2C online surveys usually return 10-30%). 

Financial incentives were used to reimburse individuals for their time once we reached the stage of focus groups, interviews and the experiment. We recruited participants to the experiment through student channels, mental health networks, and paid advertising on Facebook and Instagram. Participants could claim e-vouchers on completion.

Selection of adverts showing young people in the Ashmolean Museum.
Figure C: Potential adverts for participant recruitment were tested with the target group.

Summary of Research Findings

1. An emerging area needing more research

There is a lack of published literature for museum and gallery interventions / studies for mental health outcomes (and almost nothing on online interventions). The majority of studies have focussed on art and music therapy, exercise and gardening. This suggests the need for increased academic research in this area. Meanwhile, the high completion rate for our survey and the fact that half of the participants left their contact details for follow-up research demonstrated considerable public engagement in the subject. 

2. Mindfulness isn’t for everyone

The outpouring of online content by museums and cultural organisations during 2020 was phenomenal. Commentators have begun to categorise the kinds of activities, from games to virtual tours to Zoom-enabled story or handling sessions. Things that were free, accessible, family-focussed and provided a sense of security were all popular and social media was pivotal in ensuring reach. Going behind the scenes and interacting with curators and artists offered a value proposition that might not even be matchable in “normal” times. 

But what about mental health? Many organisations tackled this through the lenses of creativity, relaxation and mindfulness. Examples include Te Papa’s Little Page of Calm of slow art, jigsaws, and quizzes and the Smithsonian’s Care Package of poems and meditations to address “uncertainty, anxiety, and grief through vision, reflection, and healing”. According to Louise Thompson, Health and Wellbeing Manager at Manchester Art Gallery, her art-inspired mindfulness videos prioritised health over art in both marketing and content, with any engagement with the art as a bi-product (L. Thompson, 2020, personal communication).

Screenshot of a webpage called 'Care Package' full of mindful content curated by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.
Figure D: Screenshot of the Care Package page at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center.

However, our survey found that relaxation and mindfulness is not for everyone, in particular because they encourage a focus on the self, which can be problematic:

“If the content is explicitly targeted, it effectively reminds you that you have a problem.”

This was also true of resources labelled as being good for your mental health:

“I can’t bear being told what I should be doing by a ‘professional’ who has had no life experience and no suffering in their lives.”

Participants who did find targeted OCC helpful suggested it needed to focus on positivity and self-actualisation rather than introspection, and be invitational rather than remedial.  

3. The power of (even passive) immersion and connectedness

Online cultural resources have been helpful in ways their creators may not have anticipated. Young people in particular found that music, podcasts, or reading something detailed helped them by shifting attention away from their (negative) thoughts:

“During that time, you are only really thinking about that thing, not about what other people think about you or having those sorts of accumulative thoughts that have negative impacts…it’s kind of a relief from these thoughts and things.”

Museums who shared collections on social media or set up “art challenges” to recreate artworks ticked the “fun” box, but additional implicit factors may have contributed to their success, such as feeling part of an online community in a time of acute isolation and de-socialisation:

“I have been home now for 4 months and I see no end in sight. Looking at art online, seeing paintings of all eras connect me to the world.”

“#IsolationCreations [by the Ashmolean] was fantastic and engaged me when I really felt hopeless. They were fun, the curator responded, and I am grateful.”

4. The arts divide – established arts lovers used CCC more during COVID-19 and reap greater mental health benefits 

Overall, three quarters of our survey respondents reported engaging with online cultural content (OCC) more since the start of lockdown in March 2020, and 24% said they were using it daily. But who were these people? Acknowledging our limited sampling, the majority correlated to the Ashmolean’s dominant visitor profile (white, female, aged 55+, educated). This was also reflected in the types of OCC they considered most beneficial for mental health with streaming of online theatre, dance and opera coming out on top (26%) followed by expert talks, webinars and podcasts (13%), online art classes (11%) and virtual tours and exhibitions (9%). They were also confirmed art lovers, more than 4 times more likely to mention art museum and gallery offers as being beneficial for mental health than online output from libraries, historic buildings, social or military history museums, or science museums. These mental health benefits were articulated as enjoyment of a visual experience, lifting mood and engaging the brain. 

These findings may not be unexpected but there were interesting elements in the other segments of respondents. A small percentage (<7%) of respondents had not accessed OCC since the start of the pandemic (here termed “first time users”). As a group they were only half as likely to echo the ways in which more regular users felt OCC was helpful to mental health, and were distinct from regular users in suggesting that OCC could reduce stress and anxiety. 

Young woman peering into a desktop display of ceramics in the Ashmolean Museum.
Figure E: Young people aged 16-25 were a minority group in the O-ACE research survey and make up around 5% of the Ashmolean Museum’s typical audience.

5. Young people during COVID-19: worsening mental health and potential to engage with OCC. 

Young people aged 16-24 were the smallest group represented in the survey, but they had higher than average representation in Ashmolean website first-time user groups, higher ethnic diversity, and a higher incidence of a diagnosed mental health issue or self-assessed mental distress score, calculated using the Kessler Psychological Distress Scale (K10). In fact, nearly 8 in 10 respondents aged 16-24 achieved K10 scores indicative of a mild, moderate, or severe mental health problem, >30% more than any other age group. 

We decided to focus the co-design and testing of the intervention exclusively on young people as they demonstrated a clear unmet mental health need at a time when a UK study revealed that more than 80% of young people reported a deterioration mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic (Young Minds, 2020). 

Young people who already engaged with culture could very well articulate its benefits, both actual and potential:

“I suffer from anxiety and depression and I find that going to heritage sites, theatres, and art galleries makes me feel happy and content. It has always been a way for me to find balance during moments in which I’m panicking about things going on in my life. Sorry, I sound like I’m reading from a script but it really is true.”

“Online cultural content can provide a distraction. Distractions help me jump out of habitual OCD thoughts and help me re-contextualize everything in my head.”

In our sample, young people’s lower-than-average engagement with OCC was mostly due to lack of awareness or not actively looking for online museum substitutes, rather than naked disinterest, so there was an opportunity to think hard about how museums can make themselves more visible and useful in the online sphere for this age group. 

6. The mental health “ingredients” for OCC for young people

Interviews and focus groups provided rich personal and granular insights into what made something “work” positively for mental health, rather than being simply “enjoyable”. Unstructured data was run through analysis software to reveal specific categories of action.

Unlike older, more established museum audiences who found OCC beneficial to mental health in its immediate visual and mood-lifting aspects, the younger people in our study found it more important to immerse themselves in something that shifted their attention, and to seek comfort and strength in human connections and shared experiences. Stories from other times and places in particular offered escapism and refuge from one’s own thoughts and internal battles: “it’s kind of nice to forget about my life.” They also commented on the power of human narratives to enable them to draw connections between themselves and objects or artworks. 

Interestingly, the time and place of these stories didn’t matter too much, and they didn’t need to be about well-known people as long as there was something to relate to. As one participant said, “sometimes hearing the unheard stories is good as you can feel like your own story is going unheard.” There was a desire to see the whole picture, to hear about people’s challenges as well as successes. Comfort could be found in the continuous human struggle  – “seeing that issues stretch back into history somewhere makes you feel less alone” – and stories of resilience in the face of adversity helped inspire feelings of empowerment and self-representation:

“It is nice to feel reflected in people or things. Especially during this time of COVID-19, it means a lot to feel connected and less alone…it might lead people feeling more confident and freer to more opportunities in society.”

Many stressed the importance of flipping the narrative and giving a platform for those often marginalized by history (and therefore museums) such as women, non-binary people, disabled people and the global majority: “I sometimes find it difficult to look at Western art and only see people who look like me in the background or not even there.”

Hearing other people’s views was also important. It didn’t matter who this was – a curator, a celebrity, a student – there should be no hierarchies of opinion. Crucially, being challenged by viewpoints contrary to one’s own was considered positive for mental health by encouraging empathy and reducing black-and-white thinking. It was suggested this might also help mitigate against tunnel vision and the “echo chamber” dynamics of anger and fear that can permeate social media (Wollebæk et al, 2019):

“I think people are stuck in their own echo chambers because we go to people that are like us. But it’s equally valuable to hear from people different from you. Other people’s perspectives are helpful to understand your own problems better.”

Schematic diagram showing some of the benefits for mental health offered by online cultural content
Figure F: Some of the mental health “ingredients” that young people thought online cultural content could offer.

Co-designing an online tool for young people


Armed with our research, a bunch of enthusiastic participants, and the assistance of a creative digital agency (Imagineear), we set out to build an online tool that could include these core components. From the start of the design process, we were keen to adopt an agile and iterative process, with continual review and testing. This also helped us know which stories to put forward from the one million items in the Ashmolean collections. We engaged curators and did fresh research to uncover new angles and back stories on artefacts. Proposed content and visuals were presented at regular focus groups with feedback helping to refine, reject or suggest new objects and stories. Narratives of artists’ lives, particularly those who had faced challenges, resonated strongly as well as writers, leaders and influencers whose tales were not widely known. Small details, such as the disconnecting convention of referring to people by their surname in literature were noted and reversed. For example, the Sudanese artist Ibrahim El-Salahi was referred to as “Ibrahim” throughout. Once selections were finalised, participant editors were assigned to each “core story” to provide polyvocality and to sustain their involvement and interest.

The timescale on the project was challenging but a sprint process enabled us to get extremely insightful feedback from the participants. It took us a while to get the approach right!  We needed to think very differently from how we would present digital content in an app, on-site in a museum, or indeed, via a traditional museum website. 

Selective storytelling

Around half way through the design, the focus group settled on “Ways of Being” as a title for the new tool. It aimed to sum up the diversity of lifestyles and life-stories within. But finding the right mix of lives was not always easy. Resonance-testing was a slow but important process as some of our assumptions around the democracy of objects to all wield the same narrative power were proven wrong. For example, building on initial feedback that we needed to include artworks and stories reflecting diversity and difficult themes still relevant today, some stories from antiquity were proposed such as Elagabalus (c.AD 204-222), a teenage transgender Roman emperor with a blackened reputation, and Gilgamesh, the ancient Mesopotamian epic with timeless themes such as rejection, friendship, and peer pressure. Curatorial gold, you might think. But they just didn’t work. Partly participants found it hard to find to see the links to their own lives, sometimes the themes were too dark or outlandish (such as slavery and the supernatural), and sometimes the historical or archaeological record just didn’t offer enough personalised detail:

“It would be good to have a specific person to relate to than a culture which is more abstract. With a person, you can leave your own skin and imagine being someone else. This can be good for reducing stress.”

Some stories featured difficult and even triggering themes such as obsessive relationships, drug overdoses, disordered eating, professional failure, and racial discrimination. We were advised not to whitewash these out completely but at the same time to think about what could be left unsaid if it only damaged the positivity of the story. For example, the story of Gwen John, an artist largely unappreciated until after her death, foregrounded her independent way of life and deep emotions. That she died as a recluse in poor health didn’t undermine this message but it did not add value so was excluded. 

Look, feel and navigation

The participants gave a clear steer on how and when the online tool might be used, which was a variety of home settings. We decided early on to create for desktop/laptop rather than a mobile website or app. This allowed for expansive design, and responded to feedback that phones could be as much of the problem as the solution for young people:

“Especially during lockdown, I didn’t get along well with my phone at all. There’s this constant thing of checking messages, seeing what you have or haven’t got, checking who is online, scrolling Facebook with no real purpose. Then you get that negative realisation that you’ve just laid in bed for an hour and not done anything.”

Colour was discussed as an expression of mood and we were advised that too much intense white background was overly clinical, headache inducing, and too redolent of educational resources. Subsequently the design developed a subtle colour palette which took tonal clues from the artworks and objects, to give each story a clear identity. 

UX is important in any online platform but of paramount importance to participants was a welcoming feel and reassuringly easy and consistent navigation. A difficult balance to get right was how to structure content – whilst a non-linear layout was most transparent and gave more optionality about “where to start”, too little structure could be overwhelming, confusing and frustrating: “I am interested in having a bit of guidance, as long as it isn’t too preachy.” Another strong steer was to emulate the feel of immersion you get in a gallery space, being surrounded by things and being able to pick what to look at, to give a sense of user autonomy. This gave rise to a homepage that acted as a visual map or “constellation” of things. 

Screenshot of Ways of Being main menu with circular, image-based menu.
Figure G: A menu page designed as a visual map offered non-linear exploration.


The participants were forthcoming about the types of media they found most engaging and that preferences might change depending on how they were feeling at the time of use. As the content developed and participants wanted to know more about the people in the stories, they became longer form pieces, and we needed to present these elegantly and in digestible ways. Longer text was broken up visually with other elements or paginated like a magazine.

Through various iterations we developed a framework which supported participants to read only, ready and listen, view images and listen, and for those who wanted a blend of everything, we created automated multimedia slideshows. This was new to us. Initially we had thought enriched multimedia content, with music, SFX etc. would be an appropriate approach to give users a fully immersive experience. We were wrong. The participants were very clear that lots of film and music would be overwhelming. A more simplified approach with multiple presentations of the same content would have better benefits for them. 

Tone of voice was incredibly important for relatability and authenticity. This was difficult to develop a brief for, as it’s very easy to know what you don’t want but harder to specify what you do! We took the volume approach and went through an audition process with 40+ voices, screening them using segments of the actual scripts rather than previous voiceover work or show reels (which would be a more traditional approach). We settled on three voices, including male and female, and ones from similarly-aged actors – enough to give a breadth of tone but also some consistency across the tool, providing reassurance that the same “guide” was with you throughout. 

Screenshot of a webpage on Australian artist Christian Thompson showing text, audio and video content options.
Figure H: Text, audio and video options gave user control over format preferences.

Sharing viewpoints

What started to differentiate this tool from other collections-based sites was the emphasis on a mechanism for users to share reactions, insights and stories in a pressure-free way. When we proposed a comments feature like on YouTube, participants were cautious. Cancel culture and the pressure and judgement that comes with social media was a significant concern for this group, but arts and culture were seen as an open, safe space where it was OK to have different opinions and interpretations, so a comments function could help facilitate this as long as it was monitored and users could decide on levels of anonymisation. A comments function was enabled on every page which was linked to an email address where a moderator could publish these to the tool so participants could see their comments alongside others. 

Some of the viewpoints submitted in the experiment phase indicated deep levels of resonance:

“All of these stories were very inspiring. A lot of people here did not conform to societal expectations, whether it be through gender, sexuality, race, or general social norms. None of them let their differences hold them back from pursuing what they wanted, showing that it is not impossible to achieve what you want if you set your mind to it and don’t sway from what you believe in.”

The comments tool was described by one participant as being a bit like the “post-match analysis” after a football game. You’ve all sat and watched the same thing but now you have a chance to share your take on it and that might be quite different from someone else’s. 

Screenshot showing an image of artist Gewn John and a selection of comments next to it.
Figure I: User comments were moderated and fed into the tool, and colorised with the palette of the lead artwork.

Tips for content producers interested in addressing mental health in young adults

  • Throw preconceptions out the window. 
  • Don’t assume any group is homogenous and involve your intended user group in ideation, creation, and evaluation. Involvement at all stages, not just at the very start and very end, helps with empowerment and ownership over the product. 
  • Focus groups are great but don’t exhaust them – ensure you have enough new and engaging prototypes to discuss, and don’t expect everyone to have an opinion all the time. Offer other ways for participants to contribute, perhaps using the private chat function or via email afterwards. 
  • Have a list of criteria for your content. Which “core component” is it activating to benefit mental health? Are there parts which could be problematic for young people that should be removed, for example, value judgements or distressing accounts of death, addiction, or emotional pain? For museums to write accounts of lives that are not cradle-to-grave biographies can feel unthorough, but it is ultimately liberating. You’re not Wikipedia.
  • Get the balance right – too much content makes users feel overwhelmed, too little limits scope for exploration and surprise discoveries, and discourages repeat use.
  • Don’t make it feel like school, either in flat presentation or didactic tone. The emphasis should be on experience rather than learning. Don’t be afraid of trying new tones and approaches.
  • Don’t assume young people want everything bite-sized. Online platforms have the unique capacity to explore human-centred narratives creatively in long-form content, perhaps more so than in the limitations of the museum itself. It is notable that the majority of artefacts featured in the O-ACE intervention are in the Ashmolean’s reserve collections not normally on display, and the few that can be found in the galleries have cursory labels relating to purpose and materials with no indication of the past lives entangled within. 
  • Pay attention to small UX details – anxiety can be triggered by not knowing where content is or how long it will take to consume, or if the format is difficult. Minimal menus, alternative formats, approximate read time, and progress bars for audio are all assistive.
  • “You can’t schedule mental health”. There is a clear value of 24-hour access to content so avoid reliance on live chat or other features only manned 9-5, or the exclusionary nature of streamed content.
  • Put effort into production values. Young people are wary of museum websites that are just like catalogues. If something looks like care has gone into it, people want to interact with it. It feels like you have made something just for them. 


The benefits of a positive research experience

Two factors helped distinguish this project from so many previous “user research” projects by museums: 1) all methods and protocols followed strict ethical standards applying to human research subjects and 2) participant renumeration was factored into the budget. This meant that participants at all stages reported a positive experience, felt valued, and benefitted from clear lines of communication and understanding about how their data was stored and used. It helped with meeting recruitment targets, participant retention and engagement over several months, and fostering an understanding of how research can help both at personal and policy levels. For two thirds of the participants, this was their first research study and the majority would consider taking part in research again.

Do it more, do it earlier

There was a consensus among the young people in our study that “do it more, do it earlier” would optimise OCC for lasting mental health impact. They also highlighted the importance of early intervention, suggesting that whether you choose to engage with online culture or not is “not just about parents and upbringing, it’s about how ideas are passed through teachers, friends, and social media. You just need to ‘plant the seed'”.

Next steps

At the time of writing, the results of the O-ACE experiment are yet to be published. Indicative qualitative data suggests that exposure to OCC creates feelings of accomplishment, escapism and inspiration. Suggested improvements include more content (the prototype had eleven stories) released episodically to keep the experience fresh and provide something to look forward to, optimisation for mobile, and offering opportunities for interactivity with other users.  

One of the reasons the project worked well was that the constituent investigators genuinely wanted to learn from the others’ field to enhance knowledge of their own; museums purport to offer experiences that are good for wellbeing but often lack the empirical knowledge to back that up, whilst psychiatrists can theorise on the neural mechanisms triggered by exposure to arts and culture but don’t often have venues or scenarios to usefully test them.” More generally, we lack data on how internet-enabled experiences can actually benefit mental health so projects like this help to shift the conversation and inform real-world activities around social prescribing and positive screen-time.

By October 2020, mental health was the most recurring theme in terms of published papers and preprints on the effects of COVID-19. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected young people in terms of disruption of education, job prospects, and relationships at an already difficult stage of life characterised by transition and a developing sense of self. Clinicians suggest that perhaps half of all adult mental health disorders begin in adolescence (Jones, 2013). Antidepressant medication and/or talking therapies are neither accessible nor acceptable to many, so there is a compelling need for more evidence-based, non-clinical resources to meet the mental health needs of young people, and museums have a role to play, both in person and online. As well as a public release of Ways of Being, we intend to maintain an online lab space for further research, and data from this pilot will be used to inform further cross-sectoral research collaborations between arts, technology and health partners (Fancourt, 2019).


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Cite as:
Adams, Helen, Sheriff, Rebecca and Cooper-Hammond, Clare. "Optimising online cultural content to positively impact mental health in young people." MW21: MW 2021. Published January 30, 2021. Consulted .