Designing Technology-Mediated Peer Support for Postgraduate Research Students at Risk of Loneliness and Isolation
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Student mental health and wellbeing have come under increased scrutiny in recent years. Postgraduate research (PGR) students are at risk of experiencing mental health concerns and this, with the often isolated and competitive nature of their work, can impact their sense of community and social connectedness. In response to these concerns, we designed Pears, a system to connect PGR students for regular “pearings” (in-person meetings) and provide activities to promote reflection and conversation. A four-week evaluation of Pears with 15 students highlighted its potential to sometimes, but not always, facilitate peer support. Some participants would instead meet formally and according to their needs, others instead used the system to make new social connections. Additionally, some participants who faced work-related difficulties during the study found using the system contributed to their stress levels. We conclude by noting how technologies that encourage peer support can help build social relationships, providing an avenue to share similar PhD experiences and guidance for those new to the experience, while importantly raising awareness and an understanding for the need to take time for self-care. However, these technologies must be utilised carefully, and are not a replacement for other sources of student support in universities.