Ongoing since 2018

Project Director: Linda Charmaraman, Ph.D.

Funded by: Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development of the National Institutes of Health

This three-year study funded by the National Institutes of Health follows middle school students and their parents during a critical developmental period to determine longer-term health and wellbeing effects of social technologies, including smartphones, social media, YouTube, and gaming. A key goal is not only to prevent negative health effects of social media use, but also to harness its potential to increase connections with other people and communities through the exchange of social and emotional support and opportunities for civic engagement. 

The award, given through the NIH R15 mechanism, is meant to expose students to hands-on research and support the research environment of schools that have not been major recipients of NIH support in the past. This is the first R15 awarded to Wellesley College for social science research.

Methods

Led by Dr. Charmaraman, undergraduate students from Wellesley College are central to the research process of this longitudinal, multi-method study. Through the Youth, Media & Wellbeing Research Lab, they have assisted in conducting surveys of hundreds of middle school students, surveying a subsample of parents, and interviewing a subsample of middle school students. Analyses of those surveys and interviews have investigated demographics associated with early social media use, how social media use is related to psychosocial issues like depression or anxiety and behavioral outcomes like sleep, physical activity, substance use, or problematic internet behaviors, and the influence of parents and peers.

Results

Sleep

A significant study that has come out of this project so far looked at how the quantity, content, and context of social media use affects adolescents’ sleep. Dr. Charmaraman and her team found that checking social media often, viewing emotional or violent videos, and starting to use social media at an early age were significantly related to later bedtimes and fewer hours of sleep on school nights for early adolescents. Parental rules restricting mobile phone and online use before bed and obtaining a smartphone at a later age were associated with increased sleep duration and earlier bedtimes. 

Gaming

Dr. Charmaraman and her team also examined the association between playing violent or age-inappropriate online games and behavioral health outcomes for early adolescents. In one study, they found that middle school students who played high-risk games—as measured by maturity and violence level—reported higher depressive symptoms and problematic internet behaviors, less sleep, more time spent playing games, and higher frequency of checking social media than non-gaming students. In another study, they similarly found that those who played high-risk games spent significantly more time playing games, were more interactive with other players, and had poorer sleep outcomes than non-high-risk gamers. Additionally, playing high-risk games had significantly different social impacts compared to less-risky gaming, including spending more money on games, spending less time on homework and with family, or skipping meals due to gaming.

Research in Action

For the past two summers, Dr. Charmaraman has teamed up with Catherine Delcourt, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Wellesley College Computer Science Department, to host a workshop that uses the findings from this project to teach middle school students about healthy social media use. In 2019, the workshop was held at a middle school in Norwood, MA, and in 2020, it was held virtually, allowing students from across the country to attend. The workshops have been partially funded by the I Am Strong Foundation in Westwood, MA, which is dedicated to shattering the stigma of teen mental health struggles.

This research project is supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development of the National Institutes of Health under award number R15HD094281. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health.

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