middle school age kids work on laptop

From Youtube to Instagram to Fortnite, middle schoolers are surrounded by social media and social gaming platforms, but are they using them safely? The Wellesley Centers for Women teamed up with the Wellesley College Computer Science Department to host a workshop at the Dr. Philip O. Coakley Middle School in Norwood, MA, from July 15 through July 18, to teach middle schoolers about social media’s impact on their lives and how to use it in a healthy way.

“Early adolescents are particularly vulnerable to behavioral and mental health risks that can be heightened by social media use,” said Dr. Linda Charmaraman, a co-leader of the workshop, senior research scientist at WCW, and director of the WCW Youth, Media, and Wellbeing Research Lab. “This collaboration allows us to put our research into action, providing tools to support healthier social media use and simultaneously engaging with students, teachers, counselors, and parents while we examine the role of technology in our lives.”

adult teaches middle school age kids about social mediaThirteen 6th-8th graders attended the workshop co-led by Dr. Charmaraman and Dr. Catherine Delcourt, assistant professor of Computer Science at Wellesley College. The workshop was funded by the Social Sciences Summer Research Internship Program at Wellesley College and the I Am Strong Foundation of Westwood, MA, which is dedicated to shattering the stigma of teen mental health struggles.

Throughout the workshop, Dr. Charmarman, Dr. Delcourt, and Wellesley College students Ashley Kim, Cynthia Serrano Najera, and Payton Vandergriff engaged participants in discussions on how apps are created and introduced them to coding concepts. Participants also contributed to the design of a research-based app Dr. Charmaraman and Dr. Delcourt are developing to teach middle schoolers about healthy social media use.

“It is so important for adolescents to understand the design and creation process of the apps they use. This knowledge can give them insight into what enabled unhealthy social media usage habits and empower them to find better solutions,” said Dr. Delcourt.

To cap off the 4-day workshop, participants presented their ideas for Dr. Charmaraman and Dr. Delcourt’s app and discussed what they learned throughout the workshop. One participant said, “I learned that most kids are addicted to their phones, and there are ways to stop being addicted.”

The principal of Coakley Middle School, Dr. Margo Fraczek was glad to partner with Wellesley College on this important issue. “Middle School students are at the forefront of the social media world. It has so much to offer and so many distractions and negative possibilities,” she said, “It was fantastic working with Wellesley to see how our students are interacting with social media and having our students learn more about this medium.”

The idea for the workshop grew out of an ongoing research study of the Youth, Media, and Wellbeing Research Lab at WCW led by Dr. Charmaraman and funded by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute Of Child Health & Human Development of the National Institutes of Health. The aim of that project is to study associations between middle school students’ social media use and health implications, as well as the roles of peer influence and parental monitoring.

“We need to better understand the specific behavioral and psychosocial risks early adolescents face when using social media at such a young age,” said Dr. Charmaraman. “This research will inform how educators, policymakers, pediatricians, and families address early adolescent social media use and its impact -- both positive and negative -- on youth development.”

July 29, 2019

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