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19/135 Interactive electronic devices and children and young people's wellbeing


19 August 2022




Please note: The Public Health Research (PHR) Programme would like to draw researchers’ attention to the commissioning brief below, which was first advertised in Autumn 2019. This is a brief that we have previously advertised as a commissioned funding opportunity. We are still interested in receiving applications in this research area, as it remains a priority in our portfolio. However, please note that the commissioning brief, along with the underpinning literature searches, has not been updated since originally written.

Research questions

  • What is the impact of interactive electronic devices on health and health inequalities experienced by children and young people (CYP)?
  • What are the effective interventions that aim to maximise benefit or minimise harm of health outcomes as a result of the use interactive electronic devices activities for CYP?

Many CYP view screens in their daily lives from an early age. This includes the use of interactive electronic devices, for activities such as education, gaming and other entertainment, and social media use. It has been highlighted that these activities may have positive or negative outcomes. For example, time spent online can be of great benefit to CYP, providing opportunities for learning and skills development, as well as allowing young people to find friendship, support and information. Others have argued that screen time can have negative effects, such as a reduction in physical activity, speech development and mental health problems. In addition the use of interactive electronic devises by main carers may have an impact upon CYP development.

The PHR Programme is interested in the impacts on health, health inequalities and related outcomes of interactive electronic devices for CYP. The programme is interested in both maximising the benefits and minimising the harms for health outcomes as a result of the use interactive electronic devices activities by CYP.

The Programme is not interested in the effectiveness of individual apps or electronic applications that do not have an element of interaction, such as reading a novel on an e-readers. The Programme is not interested in interventions that operate at an individual level, but rather those that operate at a population/group level.

Given the rapid increase in interactive electronic device use by CYP, and their carers, over the past decade, particularly for new content areas such as social media, consideration should be given to understanding the impact of the contexts and content of device use on CYP health and well-being. Consideration must also be given to new and changing technologies, (e.g. artificial intelligence) timely delivery and future relevance of findings.

A range of study designs and outcome measures could be used, the choice of which should be fully justified by applicants. Outcomes may include (but are not limited to):

  • Physical activity levels (e.g. sedentary behaviour driven by screens, activity driven by tracking devices)
  • Psychological impact of interaction over the internet (e.g. addiction to social media, immediacy, anonymity)
  • Impact of easy access to information (e.g. ability to understand health conditions)
  • Physiological effects of screens (e.g. blue light impact on melatonin and sleep)
  • Developmental impacts (e.g. speech development, educational attainment, anger management)

Researchers will need to identify and justify the most suitable methodological approach. Researchers will need to specify how short, medium and long term impacts will be evaluated.

This call links in with a roundtable chaired by the Chief Scientific Advisor for DHSC in June 2019. The roundtable brought together academics and research funders to explore possibilities for future research around ‘Screen-based activities, social media and children and young people’s mental health and psychosocial well-being’. A priority area identified by the roundtable was to explore the views of children and young people, parents and carers, and educators on what are the priority research questions in this area. Development of work in this area is being led by the NIHR Policy Research Programme.

Relevant populations or sub-groups may be studied, based on factors such as ethnicity, socioeconomic status, age groups, gender or other social markers. Researchers are to specify and justify their choice and the relevance to the population being studied and the outcomes being measured. Researchers should demonstrate the relevance of their proposed research to policy makers and other evidence-users. Researchers are encouraged to consider wider economic impacts across whole systems. Researchers are encouraged to involve relevant subject-matter experts, including children and young people and their carers in the development of the research question and undertaking of the research.

Studies should generate evidence to inform the implementation of single or multi-component interventions. Studies may include evidence syntheses, studies evaluating interventions, including trials, quasi- and natural experimental evaluations, and feasibility and pilot studies for these. We welcome applications for linked studies (e.g. pilot + main evaluation). Secondary analyses of existing epidemiological data and/or impact modelling studies may also be funded. We encourage the adoption of a systems perspective where appropriate to the study context. The validity of measures in issues relevant to the call such as measuring screen use is complex, and applicants should carefully explain the approach they are taking and how they are sure it accurately reflects reality. UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) funds methodological research and is aware of the methodological challenges this area presents.  They are currently exploring avenues for supporting focussed methodological activity in the area.  In all cases a strong justification for the chosen design and methods must be made.

The primary outcome measure of the research, if not necessarily the intervention itself, must be health-related. The positive or negative impacts of the intervention, including inequitable outcomes should be considered.  Researchers are asked to indicate how long-term impacts will be assessed. All applications should identify underlying theory and include a logic model (or equivalent) to help explain underlying context, theory and mechanisms. Proposals should ensure adequate public involvement in the research.

The impacts of public health interventions are often complex and wide-reaching. Studies should acknowledge this by adopting a broad perspective, taking account of costs and benefits to all relevant sectors of society. An appropriate health economic analysis to inform cost effectiveness, affordability or return on investment should be included where appropriate. Sustainability - health, economic and environmental - are also of interest. 

For all proposals, applicants should clearly state the public health utility of the outcomes and the mechanisms by which they will inform future public health policy and practice. Details about the potential pathway to impact and scalability of interventions, if shown to have an effect, should be provided, including an indication of which organisation(s) might fund the relevant intervention(s) if widely implemented.

Representatives of policy or practice communities relevant to the project should be directly engaged or involved with the development and delivery of PHR research because this produces research that is more closely grounded in, and reflective of, their concerns and makes the subsequent uptake and application of research findings more likely. By policy or practice, we mean any organisation that is involved in shaping policy or delivering public health services relevant to the research, whether at local or national levels. This might include local authorities, charities, voluntary organisations, professional bodies, commercial organisations, governmental and arms-length bodies.
We welcome proposals in which appropriate professionals (e.g. a director of public health or chief executive of a charity) are formally part of the project team as a co-applicant, and in which they play a defined role in the project. Their contribution may be to facilitate or enable research access to organisations, to be directly involved in research fieldwork, to contribute to interpretation of emerging findings, and to be involved in dissemination activity. The time of policy or practice representatives as co-applicants can be costed into the proposal, as part of the Research Costs. As with all members of a project team, an individual's equipoise should be considered before they are proposed as co-applicant of a research project. Their involvement and associated costs should be fully justified, in the same way as for academic applicants.

There are other ways in which policy or practice representative support for the proposed research can be demonstrated, such as co-opting on to a project advisory or steering group, or the inclusion of a letter or statement of support from a senior policy or practice partner from relevant organisations.

Remit of call

All proposals submitted under this call must fall within the remit of the PHR Programme. For the evaluation of time sensitive, policy driven, interventions applicants may wish to consider the fast-track work stream, also available on the PHR Programme page as linked above.

General notes

The PHR Programme funds research to generate evidence to inform the delivery of non-NHS interventions intended to improve the health of the public and reduce inequalities in health. Our scope is multi-disciplinary and broad, covering a wide range of interventions that improve public health.

The primary aim of the programme is the evaluation of practical interventions. We will fund both primary research (mainly evaluative, but also some preparatory research) and secondary research (evidence synthesis); precise methods will need to be appropriate to the question being asked and the feasibility of the research.

Our research serves a variety of key stakeholders including: decision-makers in local government; primary care organisations and other local public services; third sector organisations; relevant national agencies (e.g. NICE) concerned with improving public health and reducing health inequalities; researchers; public health practitioners and the public.

Applicants should consider how their findings will impact upon decision making in public health practice, whether results are generalisable to other populations and affordable, setting out a clear pathway to impact. The NIHR PHR programme recognises that there is a need for an evidence base for disinvestment and that the removal of an intervention from a population can be worthy of evaluation.

The affordability of the intervention, and at least an indication of the stakeholder(s) willing to fund the intervention, should be referenced within the stage 1 application. At the stage 2 application point, statements of support confirming stakeholder commitments to funding will be required. Applications received in response to this PHR commissioned call may be eligible for a contribution towards intervention costs if Local Authorities (LA’s) or other commissioner organisations are unable to fund the intervention costs.  Researchers are expected to work closely with the commissioning organisations to explore and secure intervention cost requirements but in exceptional circumstances where it has not been possible to secure funding, researchers may be eligible to access funding. This is a UK-wide pilot initiative and intervention costs can be covered within England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. For the Stage 1 application, if you think you are may need to make a case for accessing intervention costs, please enter the amount being requested in the ‘Estimated non-NHS intervention costs’ section of the form and also highlight in writing at the start of the Research Plan section of the form that you may wish to access these funds and the likely amount. Please note that there is an expectation that throughout the commissioning process applicants will continue to try and source these costs from partnering organisations. Please note that these costs are not intended for the development of new interventions. Please visit the PHR remit for more information on eligibility. Proposals applying for intervention costs will be assessed via the standard PHR funding process.

The PHR Programme is open to the joint funding of research projects with other organisations such as those in the third sector. If you would like to explore the potential for joint funding, please contact us at with details of your proposal and the other funder prior to submission.

All of our funded projects are eligible for publication in the NIHR Journals Library. This open access resource is freely available online, and provides a full and permanent record of NIHR-funded research.

Notes to applicants

The PHR Programme is funded by the NIHR, with contributions from the CSO in Scotland, Health and Care Research Wales, and HSC R&D, Public Health Agency, Northern Ireland. Researchers in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are eligible to apply for funding under this programme.

Applicants are recommended to seek advice from suitable methodological support services, at an early stage in the development of their research idea and application. The NIHR Research Design Service can advise on appropriate NIHR programme choice, and developing and designing high quality research grant applications.

The NIHR Clinical Research Network (CRN) supports health and social care research taking place in NHS and non-NHS settings. The CRN provides expert advice and support to plan, set up and deliver research efficiently.

Clinical Trials Units are regarded as an important component of many trial applications however, they are not essential for all types of studies to the PHR Programme. The CTUs can advise and participate throughout the process from initial idea development through to project delivery and reporting. NIHR CTU Support Funding provides information on units receiving funding from the NIHR to collaborate on research applications to NIHR programmes and funded projects. In addition, the UKCRC CTU Network provides a searchable information resource on all registered units in the UK, and lists key interest areas and contact information. 

Transparency agenda

In line with the government’s transparency agenda, any contract resulting from this tender may be published in its entirety to the general public. For information about contracts worth over £10,000 with the government and its agencies use: Contracts Finder.