Friday 21 December 2018

The power of cookies

Posted by Peter van der Graaf, AskFuse Research Manager / Fuse Knowledge Exchange Broker, Teesside University

With the festive season upon us, many are looking forward to indulging in a mince pie or two and getting stuck in some extra helpings of turkey or brandy-soaked Christmas pudding. This often sparks some well-intentioned health warnings from public health folk about the risks of overindulging, binge drinking and the increasing obesity epidemic. Not wanting to dismiss these important messages, I would like to focus on a different message in this blog: food as a great tool for knowledge mobilisation (making information useable and accessible through working collaboratively).

If there is one thing that I have learned in my time as AskFuse Research Manager, it is that nothing is as useful as biscuits for bringing people together and contributing to a positive meeting between researchers and health professionals. 

This insight started from my own weakness: I have an incurable sweet tooth and my colleagues and students have quickly learned to exploit this asset for plying me with Dutch liquorice and other delicacies into supporting their requests and theses. So, I decided to turn their own weapons on them, with surprising results.

Stuck in a challenging debate about the usefulness of research evidence for commissioning local health services? Bring some cookies and fruit (to balance; I am a public health researcher after all!) and you will find that conversations all of sudden move in more fruitful directions.

Although my experience told me that cookies are a great conversation starter when brokering knowledge, I did not realise until recently that this was an area of serious academic study. In a recent paper published in Medical Education[1], Michael Hessler and colleagues from the University Hospital of Münster in Germany decided to put the power of cookies to the test and conducted their own Randomised Controlled Trial while delivering an emergency medicine course.

They were worried about the evaluations at the end of their course and suspected that these were not the measures of quality that the University was hoping for. Therefore, they were looking for a ‘content-unrelated’ intervention that would alter their evaluation results significantly and prove that their evaluations were seriously under-baked.

Third‐year medical students (n=118) were randomly allocated into 20 groups, 10 of which had free access to 500g of chocolate cookies during the course sessions (cookie group!) and 10 of which did not (control group). The groups had the same teachers and were taught the same content. After the course, all students were asked to complete a 38‐question evaluation form.

The results were very appetising: the cookie group evaluated teachers significantly better than the control group, they rated the course material as considerably better and overall satisfaction scores for the course were significantly higher. In summary: the provision of chocolate cookies had a significant effect on course evaluation.

One might conclude that course evaluations are seriously flawed but I prefer the ‘cookie-jar-is-always-half-full’ interpretation: providing cookies to participants is a great way to boost results! The German research adds baking powder to my own observations in UK knowledge brokering: cookies are a great way to boost exchange of knowledge and relationship building in conversations and meetings.

The ingredients of each meeting and conversation might be different but they all need a baking agent to rise to the occasion. So, whatever you do this Christmas, if you would like to avoid awkward questions during social and family gatherings about ‘what it is that you do as a researcher’ or ‘when are you finally going to finish your PhD?’, just bring a plate of cookies and subtly but swiftly change the conversation to a sweeter topic.

Happy Christmas!


Reference:
  1. Hessler M, Pöpping DM, Hollstein H, Ohlenburg H, Arnemann PH, Massoth C, Seidel LM, Zarbock A, Wenk M. Availability of cookies during an academic course session affects evaluation of teaching. Medical education. 2018 Oct;52(10):1064-72, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/pdf/10.1111/medu.13627

Tuesday 11 December 2018

It is time to ban the sale of energy drinks to children in the UK

Guest post by Prof Amandine Garde, Dr Amelia Lake and Dr Shelina Visram

In 2016 in the UK alone we consumed 679 million litres of high sugar, high caffeine drinks known as “energy drinks”. Described as the fastest growing sector of the soft drink market, they have become a major public health concern and have been subject to both a House of Commons Science and Technology Committee Enquiry (April – December 2018) and a Department of Health and Social Care consultation (which closed on 21 November 2018).

In the report it published on Tuesday (4 December), the Committee found that “the current quantitative evidence alone is not sufficient to warrant a statutory ban”, though it noted that “societal concerns could justify a ban on the sale of energy drinks to children”. This conclusion is puzzling for several reasons.

Energy drinks and children


Firstly, a growing body of evidence has established that energy drinks consumption, particularly by children, is associated with a wide range of harmful effects.
  • Whilst childhood and adolescence are periods of rapid growth requiring adequate sleep and good nutrition, energy drinks play a role in disrupting sleep (1 - see references below).
  • It is established that energy drinks are highly erosive in terms of dental health: they have low pH and a high non-reducing sugar content (2).
  • Consumption is also linked to increased energy intake and therefore obesity (3). Hence the proposal of the UK Government to ban the sale of energy drinks to children in the second iteration of its Childhood Obesity Action Plan, published in August 2018, and the public consultation that followed.
  • However, energy drinks consumption is also linked to physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach aches and sleeping problems (with some evidence of a dose-response effect), as well increased risk-taking behaviours, including binge drinking, smoking, illicit drug use, screen time and poor dietary behaviours (4). Moreover, mixing energy drinks with alcohol increases the risk of injury and unsafe driving (5) and 6).

Secondly, the Committee has failed to engage with the fact that gathering “quantitative evidence” on the impact of energy drinks on child health would be unethical (other than the aforementioned studies, which tend to involve large-scale, school-based surveys).

To our knowledge, there have been no experimental studies involving children’s use of other age-restricted products such as alcohol, tobacco, aerosols, solvents, fireworks, knives, crossbows, petrol or even Christmas crackers (sales of which are restricted in England to those aged 12 and over). Why should energy drinks be subjected to a higher standard of evidence than any of these products?

Thirdly, the evidence base has not prevented other countries from regulating the sale of energy drinks to children. In Europe, Lithuania introduced a ban on the sale of these drinks to under 18s in 2016, followed by Latvia, whilst Norway and Sweden are reflecting on similar legislation.

It is therefore unclear why the Committee has concluded that existing evidence is insufficient to adopt a similar law in the UK. The rationale seems to lie in the absence of a “causal link” between energy drinks consumption and childhood obesity, tooth decay and other diet-related diseases. This arguably demonstrates a lack of understanding by the Committee of the strategies required to address complex and multifactorial nature of these diseases.

It is indeed difficult to establish a causal link between the various measures adopted and the burden of non-communicable diseases: no single policy option can realistically tackle broad phenomena, such as growing obesity rates or tooth decay, when taken in isolation.

Governments must ensure that public health is effectively protected, and they can invoke the precautionary principle in the event of any outstanding scientific uncertainty regarding the impact of energy drinks consumption on public health. Hence, probably, the acknowledgement from the Committee that “it would be legitimate for the Government to go beyond the evidence that is available at the moment and implement a statutory ban based on societal concerns and evidence, such as the experience of school teachers and pupils”.

The logic of their reasoning is nonetheless difficult to follow. There is no doubt that the Government should introduce legislation banning the sale of energy drinks to children, following the lead of Lithuania and Latvia. This would not amount to going beyond the evidence; it would be acting on the basis of existing evidence. It is this body of evidence that has prompted very real and major societal concerns of the effects of energy drinks on our children’s health.

Fourthly, the call of the Committee for more effective labelling measures should not be envisaged as providing an alternative to a ban on the sale of energy drinks to minors; it should only be viewed as complementing such a ban. This is all the more so as labelling could increase existing health inequalities. Children and young people from all backgrounds consume energy drinks. However, as the Committee has noted “energy drinks are consumed disproportionately by disadvantaged groups”.

There may indeed be a link between regular consumption of energy drinks and eligibility for free school meals (FSM), which is often used as an indicator of lower socio-economic status. The 2018 Health-Behaviour in School-Aged Children Survey found that, among those who reported that they drank at least one energy drink per day, 23% received FSM, whereas those who said that they never drank energy drinks or did less than once a week, 11% received FSM (compared to 13% of FSM recipients across the whole sample). A study conducted in schools in the South West England also found that being eligible for FSM was significantly associated with drinking energy drinks once a week or more (Richards and Smith, 2016).

Energy drinks have no place in a healthy diet


Finally, the Committee does not seem to be aware that the Government has a duty to protect the rights of all children to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health and to adequate nutritious food. Energy drinks have no place in a healthy diet. Shifting the responsibility of protecting them onto business actors, such as food manufacturers or food retailers, is highly problematic, not only because a voluntary ban will fail to create the level playing field within which all these actors should operate, but also because it will fail to protect child health and their rights and cannot therefore contribute to an effective obesity prevention strategy.

The Responsibility Deal has failed; regulatory measures that apply to all and are duly enforced are required to address the growing burden of obesity, tooth decay and other diet-related diseases. The conclusion that a statutory ban would be too restrictive is ideological rather than grounded in evidence.

A statutory ban is the most likely measure to ensure that children and young people are effectively protected from the many harmful effects of energy drink consumption.


About the authors:
  • Professor Amandine Garde, Professor of Law and Director of the Law & Non-Communicable Diseases Unit at the University of Liverpool. 
  • Dr Amelia Lake, Associate Director of Fuse - the Centre for Translational Research in Public Health and Reader in Public Health Nutrition at Teesside University. Amelia is a Dietitian and registered Public Health Nutritionist. 
  • Dr Shelina Visram, Programme Lead of the Complex Systems Research Programme for Fuse - the Centre for Translational Research in Public Health and Senior Lecturer in Public Health at Newcastle University.
The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the author's employer or organisation.


References:

Friday 7 December 2018

Steering the Coca-Cola Christmas trucks off course in 2018

Guest post by Beth Bradshaw, Alex Holt and Robin Ireland, Food Active

You may remember our guest blog for Fuse from last year, which discussed the media frenzy that goes into overdrive when the Coca-Cola Christmas Truck Tour sets off on its journey across various locations in the UK. We also noted our own campaigns and the efforts of others such as SUGAR SMART to make the case against welcoming the truck into towns and cities already grappling with a childhood obesity and oral health crisis.
 
Every year, we are met with growing support from the public health community and the public including GPs, dentists, teachers and parents. Last year Public Health England issued guidance to local authorities about hosting the Coca-Cola truck. However, there was also some criticism of our position, especially where we were seen as ‘spoiling’ Christmas in some way.

However, this year, things seem to be different. We feel a change in the air this festive period with a scaling back of the Coca-Cola tour, both in terms of numbers of locations and less prominent venues.

There are a number of important changes that have happened both in the build-up and the start of the Coca-Cola Christmas Truck Tour for 2018. While these might appear small, together they demonstrate quite a significant shift by the soft drinks corporate giant.

This year, the Coke Truck allowed just three days between the announcement of the tour and its start, compared to 11 days last year. Within this time frame, SUGAR SMART coordinated an open letter to Coca-Cola bosses with over 40 signatories from local authorities, Clinical Commissioning Groups, and national campaign groups to oppose the truck visiting their areas [1]. This meant there was time to coordinate responses both nationally and locally, including a series of Tooth Fairy stunts, and for noise to be made to create negative publicity before the truck had even arrived.

The Coke Truck vs the Tooth Fairies
Another important shift is the size of the tour – downsizing by over a third (37% to be exact), from 38 stops last year to just 24 this year. The 2018 tour is also visiting some much smaller locations - the media has called it ‘snubbing’ cities such as Milton Keynes and Liverpool - and there are just four visits on council-owned land. We are pleased to see so few local authorities allowing the truck on council-owned land but would urge those that are welcoming the truck to seriously consider whether this is in the best interest of their local population.

There are also more stops hosted on supermarket car parks this year, with as many as ten of the stops to Asda and Tesco. The same Tesco that announced a five-year ‘strategic partnership’ with national health charities including the British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research UK and Diabetes UK to help ‘remove barriers to healthy habits’ earlier this year. A Coca-Cola truck pitching up in their car park is certainly a barrier to healthier habits, both literally and figuratively speaking. This move has also been met with criticism and Sustain and SUGAR SMART are calling on the public to write to Asda and Tesco to ask them to reconsider hosting the truck next year. On taking this action ourselves, we received a response from Asda customer relations which said:
“We have been in conversation with Coca-Cola prior to this tour and we are happy that they will be encouraging customers to sample their sugar-free brands. They will only provide Red Coke on request and they estimate that at least 90% of their drinks sampled will be sugar free.”
As of yet and unsurprisingly, we have had no response from Tesco.

Asda’s response is consistent with the quote provided by Coca-Cola’s press release, which also appears to have satisfied Public Health England’s concerns, as they have decided not to respond to the truck this year.

Finally, in the North West of England (where Food Active is based), the truck is visiting just one city in the region compared to six visits in 2016 and four in 2017. Over the past four years, Food Active has been lobbying against the arrival of the truck in the North West, including publishing an article in the British Medical Journal [2], writing an open letter to local and national press (with over 100 signatories) and supporting SUGAR SMART’s open letters to Coca-Cola bosses. We hope that this continued pressure, even in the face of significant criticism, has helped to steer the Coke truck away from the North West.

However, we know the battle is by no means over - 14 of the 19 stops in England have above average prevalence of excess weight amongst 10-11 years old, and in some locations including Manchester, over 30% of the children have experienced tooth decay.

Last year, our blog concluded that “our experience shows us that public health has to be persistent in ensuring our messages are heard in the current victim-blaming culture”. This statement is perhaps even more validated following this year’s experiences.

In the spirit of good will this Christmas, we thank Coca-Cola for helping more of our local authorities in the North West to help tackle issues of childhood obesity and dental decay in their areas - many of which are already disproportionately burdened with deprivation and health inequalities.

www.foodactive.org.uk

@food_active


References:
  1. Ireland, R and Ashton, J.R. (2017) “Happy corporate holidays from Coca-Cola” i8633. Available at: https://www.bmj.com/content/356/bmj.i6833
  2. SUGAR SMART (2017) Spending holidays in good health. Available at: http://www.foodactive.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Open-Letter-to-Coca-Cola.pdf
Images:
  1. Courtesy of Beth Bradshaw
  2. With thanks to Sustain and Sugar Smart UK: https://www.sustainweb.org/blogs/nov17_coke_truck 

Friday 30 November 2018

Please mind the health gap: turning complex equations into a call for action

Guest post by Heather Brown, Senior Lecturer in Health Economics, and Michelle Addison, Research Associate, Newcastle University

As a quantitative researcher, I sometimes find it difficult to see how the output from complex equations can make a difference to people’s lives. The launch event for the Northern Health Science Alliance (NHSA) Health for Wealth report was a fantastic opportunity to see first-hand how statistical analysis can actually be used to influence policy and practice.



The productivity and health gap

There is a well-known productivity gap between the Northern Powerhouse and the rest of England of £4 per person per hour[1]. There is also a high health gap between the Northern Powerhouse and the rest of England, with life expectancy 2 years lower in the North. Given that both health and productivity are lower, the NHSA commissioned the Health for Wealth report to understand the impact of poor health on productivity and to explore the opportunities for improving UK productivity by unlocking regional growth through health improvement.

The perfect setting

The launch of the report took place in Newcastle at the Boiler Shop in the morning and at Lancaster House in London in the evening. The Boiler Shop is an impressive, urban industrial building set back from the Central Station. It was built in 1820 and was where Robert Stephenson and Company developed the world’s first locomotives. This has to be the perfect setting for the launch of the report. What better way to discuss how to build a healthier Northern Powerhouse for UK productivity than in this historically important space regarded as the ‘crucible of the Industrial Revolution’? The space is filled by a 100 plus audience of local policy makers, employers, health care practitioners, representatives from third sector organisations, academics, and the general public.

The morning event in Newcastle was kick started with a welcome address by Dame Jackie Daniel, Chief Executive of Newcastle Hospital and NHS Foundation Trust. She outlined how the Trust was very good at meeting targets and is one of the best performing Trusts in the country. But, the North East is still faced with reduced life expectancy and worse health outcomes than the rest of England. To solve this problem she said, we need a joint approach working with employers, local government, the voluntary sector, and the NHS. The report makes the case why it is in everyone’s interest to work together and that improving health, will improve economic prospects.

Fuse Deputy Director Professor Clare Bambra presents the report findings 
This was followed by a summary of the report findings by Fuse Deputy Director Professor Clare Bambra highlighting how 30% or £1.20 of the productivity gap between the Northern Powerhouse region and the rest of England can be explained by health. Reducing this health gap would generate an additional £3.2 billion in Gross Value Added (a measure of economic productivity). 

Next up was the leader of Newcastle City’s Council Nick Forbes. He discussed how in his role he can take the results from the report to try and make a positive change to the economic and health prospects for Newcastle. He also outlined the challenges faced from the current political climate in terms of squeezed budgets for local authorities and public health in particular.

Then there was a Q&A session where interesting questions were raised by a member of the voluntary sector on implementation and the need to involve the local community.

Finally, there was a closing address by Dr Hakim Yadi OBE, CEO of the NHSA, stressing how there was a need to make an economic case for improving health to get the central government to listen and take actual steps to make a difference.

I left the event thinking about how I present my research questions and findings and that when presented in a way that can be understood by key stakeholders, quantitative analysis can be meaningful and useful. The focus does not need to be on the complex equations but how the output from these equations can be used to change opinions or make a case for action.

I hope that the findings from this report lead to real change in improving health and economic prospects for all of us living in the Northern Powerhouse. I also hope that it changes the way I think about how I present my findings and research questions to generate evidence that can easily be used to make a real difference to public health and reducing health inequalities.


Report: Health for Wealth: Building a Healthier Northern Powerhouse for UK Productivity 
News: Major new report connects North’s poor health with poor productivity

The universities involved in the Northern Health Science Alliance (NHSA) commissioned ‘Health for Wealth’ report are: Newcastle University, University of Manchester, University of Lancaster, University of York, University of Liverpool and Sheffield University.

Reference:
  1. Office for National Statistics (2015), Regional and sub-regional productivity in the UK, https://www.ons.gov.uk/employmentandlabourmarket/peopleinwork/labourproductivity/articles/regionalandsubregionalproductivityintheuk/jan2017

Friday 23 November 2018

The Age of Bubble-gum Gin?

In a post for Alcohol Awareness Week, John Mooney, Fuse Associate and University of Sunderland Senior Public Health Lecturer, ponders how the alcohol industry will respond to declines in youth drinking. 


1990s alcopops on display at the Museum of Brands
There is no doubt about the current trend: youths and young adults are clearly drinking less alcohol. In what seems to run counter to the traditional image of “irresponsible teenagers” drinking to excess and partying the night away, a number of recently published studies and reports have confirmed an increasing indifference to the “charms of the demon drink” on the part of young people that extends across all age groups. In their recent report for example, University of Sheffield alcohol research group (SARG) in a Wellcome Trust funded study [1], highlighted that:
“Among 16-17 year-olds, the proportion who reported drinking nowadays fell from 88% in 2001 to 65% in 2016 and the decline over the same time period for 16-24 year-olds was from 90% to 78%...”
Similarly in a nearly 10,000 strong sample of participants aged 16 to 24 years using a ten year analysis of Health Survey for England datasets, rates of non-drinking increased from 18% in 2005 to 29% in 2015 (largely attributable to increases in lifetime abstention) [2]. In the same study for the same period, “not drinking in the past week” increased from 35% to 50%. The SARG Wellcome Trust report noted that younger drinkers were also consuming alcohol less often and in smaller quantities: Between 2003 and 2016, for example, the proportion of 11-15 year-old drinkers who “had consumed alcohol in the last week” fell from 41% to 19%. Among 16-17 year-old drinkers, the decline was from 58% to 39%, while for 16-24 year-olds it was from 75% to 60%.

As the Sheffield report also notes, these declines in alcohol consumption are by no means confined to the UK with similar reductions in youth drinking being seen across many European nations, North America and Australasia.

Declines in drinking would be expected of course to be accompanied by public health benefits and therefore alcohol-related hospital admission rates in England have been falling in line with consumption, as have the numbers of under 18s referred to specialist alcohol services. This has a particular resonance for North East England, where the rates of alcohol-related hospital admissions for under 18s have been among the highest in the country [3] and which in recent years have been falling more sharply than for England as a whole (though of course, the starting point was higher).

While the reasons behind these regional, national and international declines in youth drinking are as yet not particularly well understood, it is probably worth noting that we have been here before, with the early 1990s seeing international declines in youth drinking. Many experts on alcohol consumption trends at that time also noted that this decline was accompanied by a robust ‘product diversification’ response by the alcohol industry, most notably the rise of ‘alcoholic soft drinks’ or ‘alcopops’. In an article published in the Independent in 2003 [4], the then chair of Alcohol Concern, Eric Appleby commented:
"The whole alcopops thing came about because at that stage the industry had realised that they weren't getting the normal flow of drinkers coming through. Young people were more independent and drugs had taken over for a lot of young people as a recreational high instead of drink. The industry knew it had to do something. They will always deny it but it is pretty clear that the whole alcopops thing was about recruiting young drinkers and getting them at an early stage. Young people don't have a natural affinity for the taste of alcohol – this was a crash course, cutting out the middle man."
Consumption data confirmed these suspicions, with figures released by the UK Department of Health in 2002 revealing the average alcohol consumption of children aged 11 to 15 who were drinkers had rocketed from 5.3 units a week in 1990 to 9.8: ‘Alcopops’ or ready to drink mixes (RTD’s) of spirits and soft drinks were blamed.

This previous experience and the industry response does of course beg the question if there will be a similar response this time around and the format that this might take. As the Sheffield report also notes, drinking habits formed when young, have a major influence on lifetime alcohol consumption patterns, so these trends will not have escaped industry analysts and those who might be concerned about maintaining “medium to long-term consumption and sales forecasts”.

For a number of commentators, the industry responses are already clearly in evidence, most notably perhaps being a proliferation in novelty gin varieties, perhaps the most blatant ‘cross-over’ with confectionary style marketing being ‘bubble-gum gin’ or ‘marshmallow flavoured vodka’.

Of course, there is also a ready-made consumer base among young adults for energy drinks, which have been the focus of much publicised research by Fuse colleagues and there is a long established practice of these drinks as alcoholic mixers, to say nothing of the fortified caffeine and sugar enriched wine of choice, most popular in my native Scotland and the product of serene ‘Buckfast Abbey’ surroundings in South West England.

Current downward trends in alcohol consumption therefore might already be seeing a familiar  marketing response… but the extent to which that will succeed is still guesswork, given the as yet lack of clear understanding around what might be behind current trends.

From a North East public health perspective of course, long may these trends continue, since the medium to long-term population health benefits in this part of the world in particular are likely to be considerable!


#AlcoholAwarenessWeek
#AlcoholChange 


References: 
  1. Oldham M, Holmes J, Whitaker V, Fairbrother H, Curtis P: Youth Drinking in Decline. University of Sheffield Alcohol Research Group & Wellcome Trust; 2018. 
  2. Ng Fat L, Shelton N, Cable N: Investigating the growing trend of non-drinking among young people; analysis of repeated cross-sectional surveys in England 2005–2015. BMC Public Health 2018, 18(1):1090. 
  3. Public Health England: Local Alcohol Profiles for England In.: https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/local-alcohol-profiles-for-england-lape; 2017.
  4. Harding N: The Demonised Drink: How Has Youth Drinking Evolved 20 years Since The Launch of Alcopops? Independent. London; 2013.
Image: "1990s alcopops on display at the Museum of Brands, west London" by Ben Sutherland via Flickr.com, copyright © 2017: https://www.flickr.com/photos/bensutherland/37299742285

Monday 12 November 2018

Why I left a full-time teaching role to pursue a passion for school food research

Kelly Rose, Graduate Tutor/PhD researcher at Teesside University, writes about her journey to help young people make healthy food choices in a guest post for National School Meals Week.


‘Why?’ was the question I was asked numerous times when I first announced that I would be leaving my role as ‘Head of health education, and food and nutrition’ teacher in a well-respected secondary school. A job everyone around me knew I had loved; it had provided me with job satisfaction and I was able to make a difference everyday (because that’s what teachers do). To add to the incredulity of those around me, not only was I leaving this hard earned role, I was taking a 50% pay cut to embark on a short-term research contract to complete my PhD with no assurance of job security afterwards!

Here is a little background about why I came to - what was for me - a very easy decision.

As an adolescent I found myself in an extremely confused state about healthy food choices, being the ‘right’ weight and having a positive mental health. Then, when I became a mum, the painful realisation that my girls may be feeling that confusion made me want to make a societal change in whatever way I could. Not really knowing where to start, at 32 years old I threw myself into a degree in Food, Nutrition and Health Science. At this stage my only qualifications were four GCSEs and a BTEC diploma in Travel and Tourism. I still don’t know how I believed I could do it!

Three years later I had become so passionate about the power of food that I wanted to teach it to as many young people as possible. With renewed confidence, my First-class honours, and an award winning third-year ‘school lunch’ poster project, off I went to complete a PGCE in design and technology. In that year I spent more time making a wooden stool than learning about nutrition (approximately three hours) because that’s how we still train food teachers – but that’s a story for another time.

I discovered that I loved to teach and, in addition to my teaching, did all I could to help young people make healthy choices. I researched interventions, registered on courses, spoke at various events including ‘Food Matters Live’ in London and was invited to speak at a dietetic student conference at The Hague, Holland. I was thriving and learning so much about the education system: the teaching leads were happy, the GCSE results were superb, and we were improving the healthy choices and the health education in the school. It was a fantastic opportunity to be in a place where the leadership supported the health agenda. Even so, after a while, it became clear that there were barriers that were much larger than the school environment: policy change had become confusing and the support in implementing food standards had disappeared. The external environment of advertising close to schools, proliferation of fast food outlets and shops offering cheap energy drinks. The social norms around eating behaviour in our teenagers had become a turbulent misunderstood tangle of factors, and this with all of the curriculum changes and budget cuts! It was in my last two years (of seven teaching) that I spent time writing PhD proposals, knowing that to make a change I needed to be able to add research to this field, to inform the decision making processes.

That is why I feel extremely lucky to have been given the opportunity to do research at Teesside University and to have access to inspirational researchers and existing work through the Fuse network, and of course to fulfil the dream of having a positive impact on the school food environment.

I am now 8 weeks into my graduate tutor/PhD researcher post and I am sure that I have made the right decision. I used the library every day in my first week, pinching myself, not quite believing I was here with time to research and learn. Every day I am learning and have so far developed a timeline of policy past-to-present, an ecological framework of everything that impacts school food choice from the macro level (government structure and policy, sustainability focus, food supply, food industry and manufacturing, behaviours etc.) to the external and internal physical settings and the individual students. I know from my time in education that consistency and communication are key components of making sustainable healthy change in schools. I hope that I will be able to provide a clear direction on where that focus should be to contribute to the reduction of the ‘obesogenic’ environment for our young people. I have far to go in understanding the myriad of methodologies required to do this work, but I will delve into past research and attend workshops to learn all I can. As I develop questions and embark on a systematic review I have the feeling that I am at the bottom of a huge mountain, ready to make the climb. It is just the beginning and I am aware that significant patience and discipline are going to be needed to get to the top of that mountain.

I look forward to meeting you on my journey.


#schoolmealsshoutout #NSMW18

Find out more about National School Meals Week here: http://thegreatschoollunch.co.uk

Friday 2 November 2018

Why dramatic enquiry as a form of public engagement gave me my most enjoyable week as an academic

Guest post by Santosh Vijaykumar, Vice Chancellor’s Senior Research Fellow, Northumbria University

“It’s important to eat healthy but we also need sugars, although in moderation.” These are not the words of an expert on BBC’s Food Programme, but a Year 5 student at Chillingham Road Primary School in Newcastle, fidgety and impatient for the next activity to resume. And the caution came about not through a series of in-depth interviews by public health researchers such as myself, but through ‘dramatic enquiry’. Brad McCormick and Katy Vanden from Cap-a-Pie, the theatre company that developed this approach, describe it as one that “places participants in a fictional scenario where they are in-role from start to finish. They are placed in a situation where there is no clear ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answer and where they have to express their own beliefs and values.”

Brad directing the drama

Over the course of a week, we conducted four such dramatic enquiry workshops with three schools in Newcastle, each session comprising approximately 30 Year 5 pupils (10-11 year olds). Although these workshops were part of the public engagement strategy of my ongoing ESRC funded project* that seeks to understand psychological drivers of confidence in probiotics products, we decided to explore broader themes beyond just probiotics. The aim – suggested by Brad and Katy and gladly welcomed by us – was to avoid a top-down health education approach, and instead utilise this engagement format to get children to think and talk about fundamental issues: why do they eat what they eat? Can food be healthy and unhealthy at the same time? Should the government control what foods we consume? What is the relationship between responsibility and choice in the context of food? We used these themes as a funnel to eventually involve the children in a discussion on probiotics.

Each workshop starts with the children seated in a semi-circle. As soon as they are settled, Brad catches them off guard. He starts shaking hands with one of them and says “I ate at your restaurant last week, superb!”, and then goes to another: “I read your article on raw food diets, so interesting!”, and so on and so forth, setting off a series of giggles or muffled peals of laughter among the children as they make sense of the goings on. Soon after they are informed that they are all members of the Food and Drink Committee of Arcadia (a fictional country) and are asked to take a pledge of allegiance to Arcadia. A series of dramatic games such as DilemmaRama, Shake Hands/High Fives and Stop/Go has now completely warmed them up to Brad and to each other. This lays the foundation for their enthusiastic participation in the ensuing small group activities, each of which is followed by a philosophical discussion or reflection.

The small-group activities include identifying and enacting their favourite dish in a freeze frame, contemplating what it means to be healthy, and explaining the rationale for why they agree or disagree with a certain food policy from different viewpoints (as a journalist, scientist, manufacturer, etc.). In the second half of the session, they are introduced to a fictional probiotics product, to develop a commercial for it, and then asked to make a decision about whether it should be sold after exposing them to news articles reporting conflicting evidence related to the health effects of probiotics products.

As a researcher, observing these sessions live can be tough – it’s so much fun, you want to participate with the kids and leave taking notes for later. And taking notes is not easy either, even after you have committed to it. For, you realise quickly that every activity and philosophical discussion reveals a new strand of thought among children, a sharp, counter-intuitive insight, or a larger ethical perspective. As someone who is newly baptised to this form of public engagement, I realise how uninhibited and enthusiastic kids are in terms of participating in what would seem tricky terrain for adults, and how even seemingly quieter kids volunteer to voice their opinions. I am beginning to understand how this approach lends itself to unearthing perspectives of greater complexity and nuance than a traditional research method, such as a survey or experiment would. Essentially, if one were to invest in dramatic enquiry as a means of formative research for investigating a public health problem, they would reap a rich, and dare I say endless harvest of research questions worth investigating in a format that’s fun, engaging, and revelatory.

If you are waiting to know what we learned from these workshops, I will share links to a podcast series (on this blog) sometime over the next few weeks. These podcasts will give you a more detailed idea about dramatic enquiry, how the participating children benefited from it, and some perspectives that emerged about how kids perceive scientists, media, and the industry that really surprised us.

When I first arrived into the UK academic environment in February 2017, public engagement seemed a policy or media interfacing, translational exercise for researchers. Being involved in dramatic enquiry has now broadened my personal understanding of public engagement and triggered a cascade of ideas about creative ways to get a conversation going with communities whose lives we seek to positively influence through public health research. And, without a doubt, it has given me my most enjoyable week in eight years as an academic. Brad and Katy deserve some chocolate cake, but in moderation.

*Acknowledgment: This project was funded by the Consumer Data Research Centre, an ESRC Data Investment, under project ID CDRC 085, ES/L011840/1; ES/L011891/1.

Friday 19 October 2018

What’s a night out without a takeaway?

Ingrained & intertwined risky drinking & eating habits

Posted by Stephanie Scott, Senior Lecturer in Criminology & Sociology, Teesside University

A recent Fuse blog post reflected on the ways in which alcohol and food come together in the lives of young adults (Cassey Muir and Alice Graye ‘the booze, the binge and the bulge’). For example, some young adults may eat a takeaway after a night of drinking and a fry-up the next day, some may choose not to eat prior to drinking and some may drink alcohol alongside a meal. Such reflections are based on findings from the recently completed FOrwaRD project, a study that I have had heavy involvement in as a project applicant and lead researcher.

Yet, whilst the reflections of those on the cusp of adulthood are extremely important, one of the key messages from this project and an abundance of public health research evidence is that behaviours such as risky drinking and associated eating patterns become ingrained and intertwined in our lives long before we turn 18. In other words, health behaviours cluster in adolescence and track to adulthood. Think back. How long have you associated a beer with a curry or white wine with fish or, more bluntly, that going for a takeaway at the end of a night of heavy drinking is the norm? And, are these messages instilled in us during adolescence or perhaps even earlier in childhood? We also know that an unhealthy approach towards food and alcohol is more likely for some young people than others, particularly for alcohol, where we have seen a steady decline in the overall percentages of those who drink alcohol juxtaposed against those who do drink doing so at extremely high levels.

My point here is that, not only do eating and drinking behaviours interact, but the influences on these behaviours, such as parents, peers, marketing, urban space, also overlap, and overlap from an early age. Frankly, we eat and drink certain products for pleasure, for popularity or to socialise. One way in which to tackle a growth in obesogenic and alcohol-related harm is to explore overlapping and distinct influences on these behaviours at the point in which they accelerate i.e. late childhood / early adolescence and use this knowledge in the design of interventions which link rather than separate out such behaviours.

With this in mind, we set out (using Fuse pump prime funding) to identify and synthesise qualitative research evidence into common underlying factors which influence alcohol use and unhealthy eating behaviours amongst young people aged 10–17. This involved bringing together two separate bodies of literature to enable analysis and comparison across two associated fields of study. Thus, our synthesis involves the interpretation of individual studies by identification of second-order constructs (interpretations offered by the original researchers) and third-order constructs (development of new interpretations beyond those offered in individual studies) by way of the development of a ‘model structure’ of shared influences upon both unhealthy eating behaviours and alcohol use amongst young people aged 10–17.

Of the 63 studies included in the review, 27 studies focused on alcohol whereas 36 focused on eating behaviours. Initial analysis of the data identified 16 themes, 14 of which demonstrate shared or overlapping influences on young people’s alcohol use and eating behaviours. For example, we found that both alcohol and food were used by adolescents to overcome personal problems such as to relieve stress, to push away negative feelings or emotions and in some cases to replace human interaction: “…it’s a way like any other to forget or to let off steam, it depends on the person.” (Petrilli et al., 2014).

Whilst these findings are at an exceptionally early stage, one thing is clear – there remains very little research linking young people’s eating behaviours and alcohol use together. Hopefully, emerging publications from this review and the FOrwaRD project will help to lead this change.

With thanks to the core project team Louisa Ells, Emma Giles, Frances Hillier-Brown and Wafa Elamin.


Reference:
  1. Enrico Petrilli, Franca Beccaria, Franco Prina & Sara Rolando (2014) Images of alcohol among Italian adolescents. Understanding their point of view, Drugs: Education, Prevention and Policy, 21:3, 211-220, DOI: 10.3109/09687637.2013.875128

Thursday 11 October 2018

Safe negotiation of neighbourhoods should be non-negotiable

Posted by Lesley Haley, AskFuse Research Associate, Teesside University

It’s World Sight Day today. This annual event highlights a range of issues surrounding visual impairment, and the day is linked to the World Health Organisation’s Global Action Plan on sight health. Today is also ‘bin collection day’ where I live, when wheelie bins and recycling boxes migrate from their backyards and gardens to clutter our pavements. It’s a weekly event that occurs in every village, town and city. It’s also a weekly hazard to be negotiated and endured by thousands of our neighbours. Especially those with visual impairment.





It’s not an obvious connection - World Sight Day and ‘bin day’. And frankly it was a connection that didn’t occur to me either, until I went to the ‘Negotiating Neighbourhoods’ event earlier this year, run by Fuse, the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB), and the Sight Service. The event examined getting around our neighbourhoods, and gave feedback on Newcastle City Council/RNIB’s Newcastle Street Charter. The Charter describes the barriers faced by people with sight loss or mobility issues, and the actions and commitments needed and agreed to reduce these barriers (Newcastle City Council 2017). At the event, policy makers, researchers and people who are experts by experience shared their opinions and insights into safely getting around the built environment of our streets, local neighbourhoods and public spaces. This included feedback on the proliferation of street furniture such as advertising boards, lamp posts, bollards, street signs, bushes, cars parked on pavements, and wheelie bins (Newcastle City Council 2017).

Sight loss affected more than two million people in the UK in 2015, with one in five people aged over 75 living with some form of sight loss, including macular degeneration (RNIB 2018c). So for a significant number of our neighbours with mobility or sight issues, street ‘clutter’ is an increasingly frustrating and problematic issue.

It’s a public health issue too. Street furniture is impacting the health and wellbeing of people with mobility or sight loss issues. The built environment, and the street furniture cluttering it, “is restricting physical activity participation for people with sight loss” (Phoenix et al, 2015, p.127). Sight loss is associated with reduced physical activity, and the adverse social, economic and psychological effects of sight loss are being more widely recognised, including loneliness and isolation (Sim and Mackie 2015). Even the Design Council (2017) reported that ‘hostile’ public spaces could increase people’s risk of disease as it contributed to sedentary lifestyles and social isolation.

Can the humble wheelie bin really be classed as ‘hostile’? The experts by experience at the ‘Negotiating Neighbourhoods’ event have bitter experiences to prove it. Research in public health would also back them up. In 2015, 95 per cent of blind and partially sighted people reported that, in the previous three months, they had collided with a street obstacle, and a third said they had injured themselves while walking around their local area (RNIB 2015a). Many participants in the research carried out by Phoenix et al (2015) talked about injuries and also damage to their self-esteem when outdoors, because of a poorly designed built environment. Street ‘clutter’ is literally having a big impact on our neighbours as they try to navigate our streets.

At the ‘Negotiating Neighbourhoods’ event, the audience was asked “What changes could make the situation better?” Well, from a personal perspective, I have tried to stop parking my car on the pavement, have changed where I place my wheelie bin on ‘bin day’, and have tried to write (this) my first ever blog to raise awareness of the issue.

So what are your thoughts? Could you make one small change in your neighbourhood to make everybody’s everyday journeys just a little bit safer?

Surely, on World Sight day in 2018, being able to safely negotiate our neighbourhoods, should not be negotiable?

#WorldSightDay


References:

Design Council (2017) Creating Health Places Available at: https://www.designcouncil.org.uk/what-we-do/built-environment/creating-healthy-places (Accessed: 23.08.2018).

Newcastle City Council (2017) Newcastle Street Charter. Newcastle: Newcastle City Council. Available at: https://www.newcastle.gov.uk/sites/default/files/wwwfileroot/your-council-and-democracy/equality-diversity-and-citizenship/newcastle_street_charter_final.pdf (Accessed on: 23.08.2018)

Phoenix, C. Griffin, M. Smith, B. (2015) ‘Physical activity among older people with sight loss: a qualitative research study to inform policy and practice environment,’ Public Health 129 (2) pp. 124-130

Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) (2015a): Daily assault course of street obstacles and dangerous crossings injuring blind people. Available at: http://www.rnib.org.uk/daily-assault-course-street-obstacles-and-dangerous-crossings-injuring-blind-people. (Accessed 26.04.2018)

Royal National Institute of Blind People (2018c) Key information and statistics on sight loss in the UK. Available at: https://www.rnib.org.uk/professionals/knowledge-and-research-hub/key-information-and-statistics (Accessed: 01.06.2018).

Sim F, and Mackie, P (2015) ‘Sight – the most critical sense for public health?’ Public Health. 129 (2) pp. 89–90. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.puhe.2015.01.009. (Accessed: 22/08/2018)

World Health Organisation (2009) Global Action Plan for the Prevention of Avoidable Blindness and Visual Impairment 2009-2013. Available at: https://www.iapb.org/resources/who-action-plan-for-the-prevention-of-avoidable-blindness-and-visual-impairment-2009-2013/ (Accessed: 23.8.2018)

Friday 5 October 2018

Starting out and getting ahead in obesity research

Guest post by Enzo Di Battista, Research Dietitian at Aneurin Bevan University Health Board

In the lead up to the UK Congress of Obesity (#UKCO2018), I attended an Early Career Research Workshop in the beautiful grounds of Newcastle University.

Dr Maria Bryant chaired the event in which we had three talks with some interactive elements.  Here I share a few reflections and tips from the workshop.

Grant application and interview success

Professor Judith Rankin kicked off with ‘Skills to enhance the success of (fellowship) interviews’. The talk was split into three main sections – completing a fellowship application, what to do prior to the interview and what to do during the interview.

On listening to Professor Rankin’s advice on completing a grant application for research, I noted ‘5 tips’:
  1. Start early on the application – you should take about a year to draft, critique, draft, critique, and draft and critique (you get the idea).
  2. Ensure you have a good supervisory team around you for advice and support.
  3. Speak with additional experts in research methods. This might be a statistician or an experienced qualitative/mixed-methods researcher.
  4. Contact senior people in the obesity field. Most are friendly people willing to take a look at draft applications, if given plenty of time to do so.
  5. Liaise with your local clinical trials unit for advice (England), (Scotland), (Wales). 
Getting the application shortlisted is just the first step however, you have to convince funders of your credibility to give you the money. The post-doc fellowship interview is all about YOU, your vision for the research project (not a supervisors) and your commitment to a research career. To ensure you’re ready for interview, Judith stressed the importance of mock interviews. To demonstrate, Dr Bryant stepped up to role play with Judith and we had video interview examples.

To increase the likelihood of success at interview, a panel expects that you have: 
  1. Enthusiasm for your project.
  2. Designed an achievable project.
  3. An understanding of the questions you are trying to address.
  4. An understanding of the experimental approaches you plan to use. 
Influencing health-care policy

Dr Barbara McGowan was next to take to the floor for the second talk titled ‘Conducting research with an aim to influence health-care policy’.  She talked us through her career development, from working in the city as an analyst to becoming a medical doctor and research lead. Her story left the impression that her early work had given her an 'edge', improving her data interpretation skills and had benefited her research career path.

The main take-home for me was the clinical research Barbara was undertaking in pharmacotherapy (therapy using pharmaceutical drugs) for obesity. I summarised it in this tweet at the time:
Semaglutide isn’t licenced in the UK but Barbara feels it will be in the next year or so.

Evaluating public health interventions

Upon returning from a comfort break we settled down to listen to Professor Ashley Adamson, Director of Fuse, talk about‘Evaluating public health interventions’. Ashley highlighted “The value of collaboration” and taking time to develop networks across sectors (industry, public sector, third sector, local government) to establish and maintain public health interventions.

Ashley asked us to form groups and consider how we would implement and evaluate a breakfast club initiative in primary schools. It was a useful exercise to consider what skills (e.g. project management, capacity/network building) and processes (ethics and legalities of working with school children/participant group) were needed for public health interventions and evaluation.

My favourite slide from the talk was entitled ‘An ideal evaluation’ which, as you can see from the picture below has 5 key points, with full references (BRILLIANT!).




























Before closing the workshop, Maria asked for everyone’s opinions on the afternoon and what they would like from future events. On reflection, I felt that maintaining such a high calibre of speakers was key to the quality of the workshop – so that needs to be consistent. Perhaps in future, it would be interesting to hear about emerging subjects within the obesity field and to invite someone who has recently completed a PhD or Post-doc fellowship to share their personal experiences.

If you have any thoughts on what makes for an excellent Early Career Research Workshop please feel free to post a comment below and I can feed it back to the UKCO2019 organising committee. Many thanks!

Friday 28 September 2018

Cancer and the simple pleasure of a good cuppa

Posted by Duika Burges Watson, Lecturer, Institute of Health and Society, Newcastle University

Thousands of people will today enjoy catching up over cake and a cuppa for the World's Biggest Coffee Morning, Macmillan Cancer Support's biggest fundraising event. But what if after cancer that cuppa and cake don’t taste right?

“When I had been through the treatment and was supposedly ‘cured’, I had hoped a cup of tea would do what it had always done and give me pleasure. But it didn’t, the tea had a textural product in it so I could swallow it. It wasn’t tea anymore, I felt miserable with it”


So said one of the head and neck cancer survivors who participated in our NIHR Research for Patient Benefit (RfPB) funded study, ‘Resources for Living’. Living beyond the life-saving treatment for cancer, all participants in our study had on-going difficulties with food and eating. It’s not the same for everyone, some people return to normal eating, but for those that live long-term with ‘altered eating’ and the unique difficulties they have, it can be miserable.

Since we formed the Altered Eating Research Network at Newcastle University following the end of the study, we’ve come to appreciate just how widespread the problem is of altered eating. Far from limited to cancer survivorship, we have a long list (and one that grows with each successive public engagement event) of conditions and experiences that may result in altered eating. We define ‘altered eating’ as a changed state of any combination of physical, emotional and social interactions with food and eating that has a negative impact on health and wellbeing. It’s a deliberately broad definition that we’ve found useful in charting a new approach to addressing it.

And on public engagement. We are very lucky to have Sam Storey, BBC Food and Farming ‘cook of the year’ finalist, 2018, as one of our team members. His passion for food notwithstanding, Sam has a unique empathy for those that have lost enjoyment in food and a remarkable skill at finding ways to bring that pleasure back. If there was a headline for our research and events it would be that ‘pleasure matters’. With increasing evidence[1] from the neurological sciences, and the advent of a research focus on ‘hedonia’(pleasure) and eudaimonia (satisfaction) in human wellbeing (e.g. the Journal of Happiness Studies) it appears there is a very real reason for the importance of pleasure to wellbeing. Combined with the feedback we get from events and research, we are ploughing ahead with a whole range of ideas of how we can help those that experience a loss of pleasure and find eating a burden.

Over the summer we ran two very successful events in collaboration with the Whitley Bay Film Festival. Two chocolate themed events - a ‘smell-along’ experience of the Spanish movie Like Water for Chocolate, and an ‘eat-along’ experience of Chocolat. They were for general audiences, but at each we introduced the films with information about the research we are doing with Altered Eating. Both events were sell-outs and great successes. You can read a blog about one person’s experience of the first event here. But as with the other events we’ve held in the last year or so (flavour masterclasses for example) we invariably discover something new, meet someone who is affected and distressed by altered eating difficulties.
Cook Sam Storey and Dr Duika Burges Watson: raining chocolate for the film festival

Our first serving during Chocolat was the most delicious hot chocolate timed perfectly to coincide with the moment Vianne Rocher (Juliette Binoche), an expert chocolatier, opens her shop in a conservative and austere rural French village. At 24 minutes in she serves hot chocolate, prepared with a ‘special kind of chilli pepper’, to the disbelieving Armande (Judi Dench), her elderly, eccentric landlady. With the first sniff and taste, Armande is emotionally transformed from bitterness to joy. For most of the movie-goers, the hot chocolate Sam had prepared was indeed a joyful experience. However, in presenting it to one person they told me “no thank you, I don’t like chocolate”. At first, I was perplexed, why pay for a chocolate eat along film if you don’t like chocolate? But then, in our research we’ve experienced this before, participants who didn’t want to participate in ‘eating’ at food play events (or not at first anyway). A reminder that food is more than about eating and that the commensal experience of being together with others matters too.

But chocolate is a little unique in terms of eating pleasures. As Professor Barry Smith, a member of the AE Network and expert in the sensory and hedonic elements of food notes, chocolate is for most, a hugely pleasurable experience that is both about flavour and texture, “the pleasure of anticipation and the reward in eating it match up. The aroma and the taste are the same. And that matters because there are two sorts of pleasure ivolved. When you start eating it, turn it around in your mouth to get the melting quality which strokes the tongue. Receptors in the tongue then respond to this stroking and it's a different feeling from touch. That's why we love a velvety wine or double cream - it's the feeling on our tongues”.

Ah yes, no wonder the tea didn’t ‘taste’ right.


Reference:
  1. Kringelbach, M.L., 2015. The pleasure of food: underlying brain mechanisms of eating and other pleasures. Flavour, 4(1), p.20.

Friday 21 September 2018

Collaborating, meandering and consolidating to identify research priorities on welfare advice and health

Posted by Natalie Forster, Senior Research Assistant and Monique Lhussier, Associate Professor in Public Health and Wellbeing, Northumbria University and Fuse

As the judges of the Man Booker prize for fiction whittle down their long list and decide on the shortlist of books in the running for best novel of the year, we’ve been making a few (more research focused) lists of our own.

Setting aside our individual research plans and ambitions to focus on welfare and health
Funded by the NIHR School for Public Health Research, we are currently working collaboratively (from across Fuse, University College London, The University of Sheffield, and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine) to set the future research agenda in the area of welfare advice and health. Working across this number of institutions, we have managed to set aside our individual research plans and ambitions and combine our expertise in a series of workshops to focus on the issues of welfare and health. Colleagues from the welfare advice sector have agreed to join us and are keeping the discussions grounded in the realities of practice, over the course of four workshops (this blog marks our half way point).

The first workshop saw us (tentatively at first) present our research to each other; with both our detailed topics and methodologies varying significantly, as one might expect. Deciding which research questions to pursue is a daunting task. Shortlisting questions was a delicate juggling act of managing our respective interests and expertise, while keeping practice perspective up front and centre, to ensure the usefulness of our future findings. This process also opened up fundamental discussions about the role of welfare advice in society, and how this should be studied.

One key area of debate concerns whether we should study the health impact of welfare advice, welfare itself, and/or systems of welfare provision in their broadest sense. At present, the UK boasts a welfare system that, in its complexity and inaccessibility, needs the intervention of advice services for users to access their entitlements. As researchers, should we therefore focus our attention on this hostile welfare environment, thought to perpetuate or deepen health inequalities, as opposed to advice services themselves? For example, a research emphasis on the health outcomes of advice might have been interesting but could play into wider failings to make benefits accessible if the advice-health relationship is proved any less than definitive. The group also considered whether advice services should be studied as an intervention or in terms of their function within society.

Further discussions centred around which outcomes, and particular user groups to focus on, and whether to study universal or means tested benefits, continuously swerving between the pragmatic and the theoretical, the national and the local. These fruitful meanderings were captured in a long list of possible research questions which we then worked to weigh up against agreed criteria. The result? A consolidated and (slightly!) shortened list of research questions, focused on five priority areas:
  1. Are there inequalities in the impact and reach of advice services across social groups? How/ does advice delivery mode matter?
  2. What are the individual and system level impacts of the de-implementation of advice services?
  3. What are the impacts of changes to welfare provision on children, inter-generationally and throughout the life course? 
  4. How do experiences of social welfare vary by social group, geographically and across generations? How do different identities combine to influence how social welfare is understood? 
  5. What is the impact of the rise in precarious employment and low wages on advice seeking and provision?
So quite a research agenda to fulfil! Throughout the remainder of the project, we’ll be engaging with advice sector representatives and recipients of advice to hear their views on the directions research in the area should take before developing concrete plans for how we could actually carry out this research. After that it’s time to commit pen to paper and draft those grant applications!

Friday 7 September 2018

What has social media got to do with your mental health?

Niamh McDade, Senior Policy and Communications Executive at the Royal Society for Public Health

There is no denying that social media has revolutionised the way we communicate and share information. Social media has become a space in which we form and build relationships, shape self-identity, express ourselves, and learn about the world around us – so it’s really no surprise that social media is intrinsically linked to mental health!

Social media has huge potential to support good mental health and wellbeing and indeed, in many ways it does. Our Status of Mind report published in May 2017, examined the positive and negative effects of social media on young people’s health and after surveying 1,479 14-24 year olds, we revealed many benefits of social networking. It can provide young people who may be suffering from mental health issues an opportunity to read, watch or listen to, and understand, the health experiences of others – relating them back to their own reality.

We also found nearly seven in 10 teens reported receiving support on social media during tough or challenging times via ‘groups’ or ‘pages’ which allow users to surround themselves with like-minded people and share their thoughts or concerns. Adding to this, social media can act as an effective platform for accurate and positive self-expression, and a place to share creative content and express interests and passions with others.

All in all, it seems great, right? And you are probably asking why a public health organisation would be running a campaign asking users to go Scroll Free this September!

Whilst there are a range of benefits, for many of us, our relationship with social media has become a little complicated. This is understandable in an online world where we are faced with a constant influx of images and videos, unrealistic beauty standards and an endless stream of apparently blissful, happy relationships. Our research has shown social media to contribute to anxiety and depression, poor sleep, negative body image, cyberbulling and FoMO (fear of missing out) – characterised by the need to be constantly connected with what other people are doing, so as not to miss out.

Scroll Free September offers a unique opportunity to take a break from all personal social media accounts for 30 days during September. A good relationship is one of balance, and Scroll Free September is here to help you gain that with social media both on and offline. By going Scroll Free for a month, you’ll have a chance to reflect on your social media use – what you missed, what you didn’t, and what you got to do and enjoy instead!

The idea is that by taking notice of and learning which elements of social media make you feel good and which make you feel bad, participating in Scroll Free September could help you build a healthier, more balanced relationship with social media in the future – a relationship where your use is conscious and mindful, and where you are the one in control.

We know that going cold turkey on social media may seem a bit much of an ask for some, so before you start tweeting your excuses, there are a range of different options to make your participation that bit easier including:

1. The Cold Turkey

Give up all personal social media for 30 days. Looking for #inspo? Emma Stone, Jenifer Lawrence, Elton John and Simon Cowell are all scroll free.

2. The Night Owl

If going cold turkey sounds a bit much, you can choose to take a break from social media at evenings after 6pm.


 
 
3. The Social Butterfly

Why not try taking a break from social media at all social events - talk to your friends, listen to the music, eat your burger without worrying about the insta post – #connect.

4. The Sleeping Dog

Find yourself going to bed at a reasonable time with the best intentions, then spending hours scrolling through your social media accounts? Is the first thing you do in the morning check your newsfeed? Give up social media in the bedroom and improve your sleep.

5. The Busy Bee

Secretly scrolling your way through the working day? Give up social media in school, work or university and maximise your productivity.


Whichever plan you choose is up to you, but the more you disconnect with social media, the more you might get from it. You can still use it for work and of course, still use your device for other purposes. Our hope is that by the end of the month you will be able to reflect back on what you missed, what you didn’t, and use that knowledge to build a healthier relationship with social media which will last into the future.

Why not join almost 5,000 others across the world who have already signed-up. Who knows what you could get up to with all that free time spent Scroll Free!

Take the plunge and sign-up at www.scrollfreeseptember.org

Wishing you the best of luck!

Friday 10 August 2018

Blogiday

The blog is on holiday over August but we still need your 500-700 word blog posts so that we can start September in style.

Please email them to Mark Welford (m.welford@tees.ac.uk).

Here's how to take part and why you should blog.




Image: "'Gone fishing'" by Stephen McCowage via Flickr.com, copyright © 2015: https://www.flickr.com/photos/130768092@N05/16139476647