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A new study finds that engaging with arts and culture online can improve mental health in young people.


In the first experimental study of its kind, researchers at the University of Oxford have found that engaging with arts and culture online can improve mental health in young people.

In a new paper published in the Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, academics from the Department of Psychiatry and Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, in partnership with the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, examined the impact of online engagement with arts and culture on depression and anxiety in young people aged between 16-24.

The researchers conducted an online trial in which participants aged 16-24 were randomly allocated to either a co-produced online cultural experience, ‘Ways of Being’ or the regular Ashmolean website. ‘Ways of Being’ 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.

The Oxford team assessed the impact of engaging with online arts and cultural content in these two ways on young people’s mental health, focusing on negative affect, positive affect and psychological distress of the young people taking part in the trial.

Lead author Dr Rebecca J Syed Sheriff, Consultant Psychiatrist and Senior Clinical Research Fellow, Department of Psychiatry, University of Oxford said:  “As far as we’re aware this is the first experimental study of online cultural experiences for mental health in young people. This online trial engaged lots of young people who are typically underrepresented in clinical research.  Our analysis shows that 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 affect compared with a typical museum website.”

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, over 24% fewer people reported clinically significant distress between the start of the pilot study and the intervention phase, which was sustained at 6 weeks
  • Researchers found that being able to access more diverse content through the ‘Ways of Being’ platform was beneficial for specific groups including ethnic minorities and young men.

Sheriff added:

“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 that 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.”

Co-author, Professor Andy Przybylski, Oxford Internet Institute, said: “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. More effort is needed to explore online how arts and culture support different vulnerable groups and connect to other types of support.”

Co-author, Helen Adams, Gardens, Libraries and Museums, University of Oxford said: “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”.

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.

Notes to Editors

For more information, please contact Sara Spinks, Media and Communications Manager, Oxford Internet Institute, 01865 287210 or contact

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.

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.  Find out more information about the Ashmolean’s history, permanent collections and current exhibitions.


Professor Andrew Przybylski

Professor of Human Behaviour and Technology

Professor Przybylski is a psychologist who studies how online social media and video games platforms influence users’ mental health. His research focuses on how data from these platforms can inform regulation, policymaking, and expert advice.