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.
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.
Early social media initiation
In one study, Dr. Charmaraman and her team found that joining social media platforms like Instagram or Snapchat before age 11 was significantly associated with having online friends or joining social media sites parents would disapprove of, more problematic digital technology behaviors, more unsympathetic online behaviors, and greater likelihood of online harassment and sexual harassment victimization. Some of these effects were lessened when parents restricted phone use and limited how often their kids checked social media. The researchers also found that regardless of when they joined social media, early adolescents more frequently engaged in positive digital behaviors than negative ones. And those who joined social media as children (age 10 or younger) demonstrated a greater tendency to engage in supportive or civically-engaged online community behaviors—such as socially supportive social media posts, fostering awareness of social issues, or organizing events through social media—compared to those who joined later.
In another study, Dr. Charmaraman and her team found that sexual minorities reported having smaller networks on their favorite social media site, and less often responded positively when friends shared good news or tried to make friends feel better when they shared bad news. However, unlike heterosexual youth, sexual minorities more often reported joining a group or online community to make themselves feel less alone. They had higher averages of loneliness and social isolation than heterosexual students, and were also twice as likely to have tried to harm themselves in the past and more likely to have symptoms of depression. About 39.1% of sexual minorities had no one to talk to about their sexual orientation. They were 1.5 times more likely to have joined a social media site their parents would disapprove of and they were more likely to report seeing online videos related to self-harm.
Another 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.
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 three 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 and 2021, 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.