Online engagement with arts and culture can have a positive impact on young people’s mental health - Oxford study

21 September 2022

Engaging with arts and culture online can improve mental health in young people, according to a ground-breaking study from researchers at the University of Oxford.

Published in the Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, the research is a collaboration between academics from Oxford’s Department of Psychiatry and the Oxford Internet Institute, in partnership with the Ashmolean Museum. In the first study of this kind, they examined the impact of online engagement with arts and culture on depression and anxiety in young people aged 16-24.

Participants were randomly allocated either to a co-produced online cultural experience, Ways of Being, or to the regular Ashmolean website. The former offered access to a diverse range of real-life human stories behind arts and artefacts from the Ashmolean and partner museums. The trial compared the impact on measures relating to depression and anxiety amongst participants.

Lead author Dr Rebecca J Syed Sheriff, Consultant Psychiatrist and Senior Clinical Research Fellow, Oxford Department of Psychiatry, says, ‘Our analysis shows online arts and culture can positively impact on young people’s mental health. The web experience, co-produced with young people, was more effective at reducing negative effect compared with a typical museum website.’

Co-author, Professor Andy Przybylski, Oxford Internet Institute, says, ‘These findings contribute to how we understand the links between online activity and wellbeing, suggesting there is potential to reach vulnerable groups through arts and culture, especially young people, many of whom are reluctant to seek help.’

Meanwhile, co-author, Helen Adams, from Oxford’s Gardens, Libraries and Museums, adds, ‘There is rapidly emerging field of research into how participation in arts and culture can contribute to better health and wellbeing. We were delighted to collaborate on this project, to take this research into new territory - online. Young people are typically under-represented among arts and culture audiences, so this study provided crucial lessons for how the sector might tailor its approach and content to improve both engagement and mental health outcomes for users, now and in the future”.

Dr Sheriff concludes, ‘These results offer an intriguing indication that enriching the online experience with enhanced and diverse content may help to reduce mental health symptoms and/or protect against the evolution of a mental disorder and associated poor outcomes in young people, as well as providing an avenue for self-management. They also suggest online arts and culture has potential as an intervention for young people with mental health needs, as an alternative or addition to conventional mental health services.’

Key findings from the pilot study:

  • Researchers found a link between engaging in online arts and culture and mental health, with participants in both trial groups reporting a reduction in psychological distress at the end of the pilot study, despite the pilot study being conducted at a time of increased Covid restrictions.
  • In both groups, 24% fewer people reported clinically significant distress between the start of the pilot study and the intervention phase, which was sustained at six weeks
  • Researchers found being able to access more diverse content through the ‘Ways of Being’ platform was beneficial for specific groups including ethnic minorities and young men.

Notes for Editors

For more information, please call Sara Spinks, Media and Communications Manager, Oxford Internet Institute +44 (0)1865 287 210 or contact [email protected].

Download the full paper, “A co-produced online cultural experience compared to a typical museum website for mental health in people aged 16-24: A proof-of-principle randomised controlled trial.” Authors: Rebecca J Syed Sheriff, Matti Vuorre, Evgenia Riga, Andrew K Przybylski, Helen Adams, Catherine J Harmer and John R Geddes.

About the research
The trial involved 463 participants aged 16-24yrs who completed a series of online tasks and surveys, conducted between December 2020 and February 2021.

About the Department of Psychiatry
The University Department of Psychiatry’s mission is to conduct world-class research, teach psychiatry to medical students, develop future researchers in a graduate programme, teach doctors in training, promote excellence in clinical practice, and develop and provide innovative clinical services. It supports research in four key areas: neurobiology, psychological treatments, developmental psychiatry and social psychiatry. The Department is committed to the translation of scientific discovery into benefits for patients.

About the Oxford Internet Institute
The Oxford Internet Institute (OII) is a multidisciplinary research and teaching department of the University of Oxford, dedicated to the social science of the Internet. Drawing from many different disciplines, the OII works to understand how individual and collective behaviour online shapes our social, economic, and political world. Since its founding in 2001, research from the OII has had a significant impact on policy debate, formulation, and implementation around the globe, as well as a secondary impact on people’s wellbeing, safety and understanding. Drawing on many different disciplines, the OII takes a combined approach to tackling society’s big questions, with the aim of positively shaping the development of the digital world for the public good. OII | Homepage (

About The Ashmolean Museum
The Ashmolean came into existence in 1682, when the wealthy antiquary Elias Ashmole gifted his collection to the University. It opened as Britain’s first public museum, and the world’s first university museum, in 1683. More information about the Ashmolean’s history, permanent collections and current exhibitions can be found at

About the University of Oxford 
Oxford University has been placed first in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings for the sixth year running, and second in the QS World Rankings 2022. At the heart of this success are the twin-pillars of our ground-breaking research and innovation and our distinctive educational offer.
Oxford is world-famous for research and teaching excellence and home to some of the most talented people from across the globe. Our work helps the lives of millions, solving real-world problems through a huge network of partnerships and collaborations. The breadth and interdisciplinary nature of our research alongside our personalised approach to teaching sparks imaginative and inventive insights and solutions.