WCW's Women Change Worlds Blog

Helping Middle School Girls Create Their Own Digital Spaces

Sidrah Durrani, Connie Gu, and Teresa Xiao

Digital communication systems, such as social media platforms, are created for the masses but aren’t often designed for a large scope of their user base: adolescent girls from marginalized communities. The Youth, Media & Wellbeing (YMW) Research Lab, in collaboration with the Computer Science Department at Wellesley College, holds an annual summer workshop for adolescent girls to explore STEM learning spaces and become designers and creators of their own digital communication systems. (This year’s workshop ran July 11-15.)

As research interns from different educational backgrounds, we all contributed our unique expertise to last year’s summer digital wellbeing workshop. We were mentored by Dr. Linda Charmaraman, director of the YMW Research Lab, and Dr. Catherine Delcourt, assistant professor of computer science at Wellesley, to explore research on human-computer interaction (HCI), specifically on participatory design and positive social media use with middle school girls. At the end of an exciting and fast-paced summer, we published and presented our work—titled “Innovating Novel Online Social Spaces with Diverse Middle School Girls: Ideation and Collaboration in a Synchronous Virtual Design Workshop”—at CHI 2022, an international HCI conference.

The aim of this participatory design workshop was to engage middle school girls in social media innovation, digital wellbeing, positive social media use, STEM identity exploration, collaboration, and computational design. Conducted virtually over four days, students were divided into small groups of three or four, grouped by age, with an assigned facilitator.

The idea generation and collaboration sessions were very fun to be involved with, especially as we watched students envision unique positive spaces online. Their ideas included an application that uses a robot to monitor and filter out negative messages, a music-based application to spread kindness, and a simulation game to develop interests and explore career paths for teenagers. Students also showed a great interest in climate change activism, spreading positivity, finding friends and peers from their neighborhood, and building a large community of like-minded individuals. They often took initiative during this time to develop prototypes and sketches.

Overall, we noted how important it was to maintain a positive and uplifting environment for the students in the workshop, which through our experience, allowed everyone to feel more comfortable with one another and share personal anecdotes with the group. We observed individual trajectories of growth through the four-day workshop and were keen on exploring our findings regarding intentional collaboration and facilitation with underrepresented middle school girls.

As research interns, we gained a lot of insight and experience being involved in the workshop, from curriculum development to report writing to the conference presentation.

It was also an interesting experience for us, as researchers and facilitators, as we became the workshop participants’ peers and mentors during the process. Stepping out of the research mindset we had while preparing the curriculum for the workshop, we were doing virtual field work by interacting with the adolescents to understand their conception and opinions of social media and STEM. This process allowed us to get to know the participants personally and join their efforts to co-design a novel and positive social online space.

To discuss our experience with the workshop and the process of publishing our paper about it, we presented at the Tanner Conference at Wellesley College and the hybrid CHI 2022 conference, during which we presented our research to HCI experts.

We were so honored to be part of such a great team and are excited to see the impactful results of this workshop in the coming summers. As research interns, we gained a lot of insight and experience being involved in the workshop, from curriculum development to report writing to the conference presentation. We all continue to engage in the research and provide input on the upcoming summer workshop through the YMW Youth Advisory Board, which allows us to test-drive activities with past workshop participants and facilitators aged 12-23. This summer, Dr. Delcourt is working with Connie to develop a facilitator training based on last year’s experience and previous research. Being involved with this workshop has helped us explore personal interests, given us the opportunity for new experiences, and taught us the tools of the trade about the research process.

If it weren't for the cold email Sidrah sent to Dr. Charmaraman expressing interest in her lab or the internship applications Connie and Teresa submitted to be involved in the lab, we would have not had this opportunity. Lastly, we could not have had such a vibrant educational experience without Dr. Delcourt and Dr. Charmaraman’s continued support and mentorship, and we’re especially grateful to them for introducing us to HCI research from the perspective of social computing and developmental psychology. As aspiring researchers, we hope to continue working toward creating more inclusive spaces in technology for girls while also supporting their positive development and digital wellbeing.


Sidrah Durrani is a master’s student in developmental psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Connie Gu is a member of the Wellesley College Class of 2024 majoring in media arts and sciences.

Teresa Xiao is a Class of 2022 graduate of Wellesley College who majored in psychology.

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On(line) Identity: Social Media is Essential for LGBTQ Youth

Teen uses smartphone while sitting on couch

This piece was written by Carolyn Bacaj and Mikhaela Andersonn, students at Wellesley College who recently took a Calderwood Seminar on public writing taught by WCW Senior Research Scientist Linda Charmaraman, Ph.D. As young adult members of the LGBTQ+ community, Carolyn and Mikhaela are passionate about identifying support networks for sexual minority groups and creating safe spaces for younger members of the community.

When Mikhaela was younger, she and her friends found themselves spending tons of time online. Through their usage of social media—typically websites that their peers weren’t on, like Tumblr—they discovered parts of their identity after being exposed to communities that gave them room to explore. Mikhaela ended up coming out as queer in the 7th grade, and she believes that without the assistance of social media as an outlet for expression and exploration, the process of discovering her identity would have been harder.

Mikhaela’s personal experiences with social media mirror the experiences of LGBTQ+ youth in a recent study of over 1000 students ages 10-16 by Dr. Charmaraman and her colleagues in the Youth, Media & Wellbeing Research Lab. The study found that LGBTQ+ youth use social media differently than their peers for reasons unique to their sexual minority identities. While privacy and bullying are concerns, social media is an integral part of their lives.

How do LGBTQ+ youth use social media differently?

There are key differences in how LGBTQ+ youth use social media versus how their peers may use it, including:

  • Spending more time online exploring their identity
  • Being less likely to have their accounts private
  • Being less likely to have friends and family on their social media pages
  • Being more likely to use social media websites that their parents disapprove of

These differences highlight the idea that social media plays a different role for LGBTQ+ youth by being a more integral part of their identity development.

With a little guidance from their families and teachers, LGBTQ+ youth can maintain close-knit online communities that help them develop their identities and improve their mental health.

Why is examining these differences important?

Social technologies are essential tools for guiding LGBTQ+ youth toward identity development and supportive communities of peers. According to Dr. Charmaraman’s study, adolescents who identify as sexual minorities are more likely to experience depression, loneliness, and isolation. With nearly half of LGBTQ youth having no one to talk to about their sexuality, this isolation is only compounded by confusion and fear about their identity. As someone from West Virginia, where there is little LGBTQ+ presence and rampant homophobia, it was difficult for Carolyn to navigate her identity without external support from the community she had grown up in.

Still, we understand the internet can be a scary place for children and teens. Since sexual minorities are more likely to view self-harm content, it’s unsurprising that they are twice as likely to have attempted self harm. This might make parents or educators nervous to encourage LGBTQ+ adolescents to use social technologies. But regardless of what teens see online, they’re not going to stop using tech—and they shouldn't.

How can the internet be a safe haven for LGBTQ+ youth?

By finding LGBTQ+ groups online, adolescents can find peers who relate to them. According to Dr. Charmaraman’s study, sexual minority adolescents more often join online communities to combat loneliness. They can find friends to talk to about things that their heterosexual peers don’t understand, such as family acceptance, lack of representation, paranoia over being outed, and internalized homophobia. It makes sense that sexual minority youth are more likely to have friends they only know through the internet. Finding this social support is essential, as it’s the most protective factor against negative mental health outcomes like depression and loneliness.

The online atmosphere is changing and becoming more accepting of the LGBTQ+ community. Platforms like Tumblr and TikTok have fostered LGBTQ+ youth voices, becoming safe havens. The Trevor Project, the largest suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ+ youth, has over two million followers on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. The internet is a resource that has built-in anonymity and widespread access for teens living in areas that aren’t as accepting. These online communities are particularly essential in supporting youth when in-person communities aren’t available, as access to identity-affirming spaces lowers rates of suicide. According to Dr. Charmaraman’s study, LGBTQ+ adolescents are more likely to find online friends significantly more supportive than in-person ones. Finding LGBTQ+ friends online means opportunities to find positive role models and support in coming out.

How can I support an LGBTQ+ adolescent in my life?

With a little guidance from their families and teachers, LGBTQ+ youth can maintain close-knit online communities that help them develop their identities and improve their mental health. Here are some tips:

  • Talk to LGBTQ+ adolescents in your life about how to recognize depression.
  • Discuss the risks of being online.
  • Talk about their online communities and support.
  • If online support isn’t enough, check out school-based or community-based resources (i.e., gay-straight alliances, organizations like Out MetroWest).
  • If applicable, connect them to an LGBTQ+ family member or community member who may be able to advocate for them or provide mentorship.
  • Check out these organizations that support LGBTQ+ youth.

Carolyn Bacaj is a member of the Wellesley College Class of 2023 majoring in education and biology. Mikhaela Andersonn is also a member of the Class of 2023 and is majoring in psychology and Spanish.

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Internship Reflection: Studying the Power of Social Media in a Pandemic

Emily Zhai

Last fall, as the COVID-19 pandemic continued to wreak havoc in the U.S. and across the world, the class of 2021 carried on attending Wellesley but in a fragmented way for our senior year. We attended our remote classes on Zoom and connected with friends through FaceTime or other forms of social media. And without really any choice, our entire lives had become entirely dependent on social technology.

I was fortunate enough to become a research assistant at the beginning of my senior year at the Wellesley Centers for Women in the Youth, Media & Wellbeing Research Lab under Dr. Linda Charmaraman. This position gave me the opportunity to reflect upon the tumultuous year and how we have used forms of social media to build community, stay connected, and engage in civic participation. Not only does this apply to college students and working professionals, but also particularly to younger generations. In fact, youth are known to researchers as the current defining users of social media. Yet there is a lack of research on how racial minority adolescents, in particular, may be affected by digital technologies and social media use. This is where the Youth, Media & Wellbeing Lab steps in.


Social media is often a safe space for adolescents of color, and rather than forcing them to spend less time on it or to spend more time on educational sites, we should instead encourage them to learn about healthy social media behaviors...

Thanks to Dr. Charmaraman and the lab, I was given the opportunity to present at my first conference (albeit virtually) on our mixed-methods study that examined how adolescents of color access and use social media for self-care, motivation, and wellbeing. Through reviewing previous research, I learned about the drawbacks of frequent social media usage: There are a number of studies that point to an increase in mental health concerns for adolescents due to cyberbullying, feeling left out, and peer pressure. Yet social media is often a safe space for adolescents of color, and rather than forcing them to spend less time on it or to spend more time on educational sites, we should instead encourage them to learn about healthy social media behaviors—for example, teaching them about risky behaviors and “internet friends” while encouraging them to use social media to connect with friends.

Along with other members of the lab, I am currently working on a paper that focuses on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and social media usage on adolescents’ mental health. Given that we continue to stay somewhat socially isolated and forced to live with uncertainty, mental health has become a popular topic, more than ever before.


Without a doubt, working in this lab has laid the foundation for my understanding of social science research and academia...

I have enjoyed applying the knowledge and frameworks from the classes I’ve taken to the research at the Youth, Media & Wellbeing Lab. I’ve also enjoyed how the research topics move with the times we’re in, to stay relevant. Through this position, I was able to learn and refine my research skills, such as conducting literature reviews and using qualitative and quantitative data analysis methods. Dr. Charmaraman is also an incredible and passionate researcher and mentor. Although she is often busy on various projects and mentors a number of students, she makes time to get to know each student in her lab individually and makes an effort to assign them work particular to their interests.

Prior to joining the lab, as a Neuroscience and Women’s and Gender Studies double major, I struggled to find interdisciplinary opportunities where these areas of interest intersect. Without a doubt, working in this lab has laid the foundation for my understanding of social science research and academia, which was helpful during my job search as well as preparation for future postgraduate studies. I wish I had become involved with the Youth, Media & Wellbeing Lab earlier during my time at Wellesley, but I am eternally grateful for getting the opportunity to work in such a wonderful space among incredible and inspiring people.


Emily Zhai is a member of the Class of 2021 at Wellesley College and graduated with a degree in Neuroscience and Women’s & Gender Studies. She worked part-time as a research assistant at the Youth, Media & Wellbeing Research Lab from fall 2020 to spring 2021. She now works as a clinical research coordinator at the Stanford Center for Precision Mental Health and Wellness in California.

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Internship Reflection: Building Knowledge Together About Our Digital Worlds

Rachel Hodes, Wellesley College graduate

As a Class of 1967 intern at the Wellesley Centers for Women, I had the opportunity to spend the past year working with Dr. Linda Charmaraman in the Youth, Media, and Wellbeing Research Lab. I worked on a wide range of projects; while all were focused around adolescent health and social media use, our research asked more specifically about sleep, mental illness, pets, activism, gaming, identity, and a whole host of other topics, many of which have been largely unexplored in the landscapes of both health and digital media research.

My internship challenged me to think critically about the unanswered questions we still have about social media. As someone on the cusp of the millennial/Gen Z divide, I relate to so many of the ways adolescents today use technology. Growing up, I also went online and to social media platforms to learn about myself and the world, to make new friends, and to engage with issues I cared about.

On the other hand, the internet is such a constantly evolving space that it’s hard to reconcile just how different the experiences of today’s early adolescents might be from my own—and that’s why the chance to learn about these experiences from many different angles was so exciting and eye-opening. Being able to analyze qualitative survey responses from LGBTQ+ youth, or watch the videos from the favorite YouTube channels respondents shared with us, has given me new insight into the reality of the media most popular among adolescents today, and the ways they navigate interactions with parents, peers, and strangers in online environments.


. . . publication in a journal was a reminder for me of one of the main reasons research matters in the first place: to share findings with a broader audience and spur informed discussion about a topic.

I also had the opportunity to collect data directly. In 2019, I went into middle schools with the lab and oversaw students taking our survey, and more recently I interviewed parents of middle schoolers about their pets, loneliness during the pandemic, and wellbeing. At the other end of the research process, having an article I co-authored published, using the data our lab collected about LGBTQ+ adolescents’ online activity, was so rewarding. Because I’d experienced so many different phases of the research process during my time with the lab, that work coming to fruition with publication in a journal was a reminder for me of one of the main reasons research matters in the first place: to share findings with a broader audience and spur informed discussion about a topic.

Ultimately, one of my biggest takeaways from studying social media use in adolescence has come from examining our lab’s findings alongside other new research on emerging social technologies. While my internship has come to an end, I’m currently diving into past scholarship on YouTube and learning which trends match our data and which differ.

Because social media can offer adolescents such a powerful outlet for self-expression and learning, while simultaneously increasing feelings of loneliness, isolation, and anxiety, it’s often impossible to come to a definite conclusion about whether the benefits outweigh the risks. Even if we could, it’s pretty clear that social media is here to stay, especially for young people, whether we like it or not—but what we can do is collaborate and build knowledge together about the digital worlds that are increasingly intertwined with our offline lives. It was an honor to be able to add my voice to that conversation, and I can’t wait to bring the inquisitive and analytical mindset that being a research assistant has taught me into my next adventure.


Rachel Hodes graduated from Wellesley College in 2021 with a degree in Sociology. They received the Class of 1967 Internship at the Wellesley Centers for Women for the 2020-2021 academic year to conduct research with Dr. Linda Charmaraman. During their internship, they co-authored an academic journal article that was published in JMIR Mental Health. After graduation, they moved to Savannah, Georgia, to work as a community organizer.

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A Research Internship that Expands Horizons

Neha LundI never knew that I would have the opportunity to do social science research as an undergraduate until I got to Wellesley College. Towards the end of my first year, with my academic interests starting to gravitate toward Sociology and South Asia Studies, I knew I wanted to connect the concepts I was learning in the classroom to action-oriented research that produced tangible results for communities that I cared about. Through the helpful guidance of my peers, professors, and mentors, I discovered that I could get that opportunity by working at the Wellesley Centers for Women.

WCW’s social justice-oriented mission and reputation for providing meaningful collaboration opportunities for Wellesley students drew me to attend a networking event with students and WCW research scientists. This is where I first met my soon-to-be research mentor, Dr. Linda Charmaraman — little did I know that our conversation would be the beginning of a year full of support, learning, growth, and mentorship. Through the Sophomore Early Research Program (SERP), which provides funded research opportunities to underrepresented students in scientific and social science research, I have been a full-time research assistant to Linda in her Youth, Media & Wellbeing Lab this school year.

As a first-generation student, the idea of entering the world of academic research with no experience was definitely nerve-wracking. However, having such a passionate, dedicated, and encouraging mentor as Linda (who is also a first-generation woman of color in academia) has made all the difference. Linda has not only taught me mixed-methods research skills such as data analysis, transcription, coding, and conducting literature reviews. She has also shown me that there is space in the academy for scholars who look like me and who value the same social justice principles that I do. My SERP experience has opened up the door of academic research as a possible future career path, something I am so grateful for at this point in my academic career.

The main project I have been working on with Linda this year is co-authoring a journal article that explores the blurred boundaries between middle school students’ social media use in the context of school and home. Especially in the era of COVID-19, when learning is increasingly dependent on social technologies, we believe it is crucial to facilitate collaborative, complementary partnerships between educators and parents to best support students’ social media use. One of my favorite parts of the research process has been utilizing concepts and frameworks I have been learning in the classroom, such as in my sociology class on schools and society, in order to add to our article from my unique perspective.

Having the opportunity to contribute to this project as an undergraduate student has allowed me to develop a sense of pride in my work, connecting my liberal arts education with my passion for meaningful practical applications. Our lab at WCW values working together with schools, community organizations, and families, which shows how academic research has the potential to be accessible and change-provoking when created with the intent of contributing to social wellbeing. My experience as a research assistant this year has complemented my Wellesley education through providing me with avenues to exercise my intellectual agency and collaborate with other students and faculty in our lab. I am so grateful to have the opportunity to conduct mixed-methods research so early in my Wellesley career, and it has truly shaped my trajectory going forward. More than ever, I understand how many different ways my education has the potential to contribute to positive change, and I am excited to continue my work in the lab going forward.

Neha Lund is a member of the Wellesley College class of 2022 who is majoring in Sociology and minoring in South Asia Studies. Through the Sophomore Early Research Program, she is also a full-time research intern at the Youth, Media & Wellbeing Research Lab at the Wellesley Centers for Women.

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Research Connections: A Student Teacher’s View on Social Media in the Classroom

Emily VargasIt is the spring of 2020, and my senior year at Wellesley College is not at all what I imagined it would be like. Before concerns about COVID-19 led schools around the country to close their doors, I was student teaching at a nearby middle school and working as a research assistant in the Youth, Media & Wellbeing Research Lab at the Wellesley Centers for Women. Since mid-March, I have been taking my classes online and working from home in California. Now more than ever, as schools are using social networking sites to reach their students at home, I can see a strong connection between what I learned in my teaching role and in my research role.

My work in the Youth, Media & Wellbeing Research Lab involves reading articles and learning about how schools integrate social technology in the classroom, and whether teachers are trained to do so. As I began this work last semester, I was starting my own journey of teaching in a classroom.

From the very beginning of my student teaching experience, I saw how my research played out at school. I saw students dancing to TikTok dances (sometimes subconsciously) as they were talking to their teacher — such a common occurrence that the teacher seemed unfazed by it. As I was learning in the lab, teachers were divided on their feelings towards the popular app. One day as I passed by the library, I noticed some teachers trying to make a TikTok video. They wanted to know more about the app and how to use it to engage students. Not all teachers felt that way — some seemed uninterested, and some were cautious of it. One teacher mentioned to me that she was worried about students putting their personal information online and uploading videos of themselves for anyone to see.

In a social studies class, students were beginning a unit on Brazil. If the semester had continued as normal, I planned to have this class video chat with a friend of mine who was studying abroad in Brazil at the time. I thought it would be a good way to get students excited about their studies and bring more social technologies into the classroom.

Since students are now at home, I am sure they are using a lot of social networking sites. The teachers I was working with are using Google Classroom, and just recently, I joined my mentor teacher’s office hours on Google Hangouts. Through this platform, students are able to socialize and talk about their homework online.

I have been thinking a lot about my own future teaching and how I would like to bring social technologies into my classroom. I hope to use what I have learned in the classroom and in the lab to find ways to engage my students with the things they are most excited about. It is very clear now that social technologies can connect students online and that we still have a lot to learn about the best ways to use them. I hope that as classes move to online formats, social technologies begin to be integrated into more classrooms, and more training is provided to teachers on how to use them effectively.

Emily Vargas is a member of the Wellesley College class of 2020 who is double majoring in English and Education. She is also a research assistant in the Youth, Media & Wellbeing Research Lab at the Wellesley Centers for Women.

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The Social Media Sweet Spot: 5 Ways Parents Can Help Teens Use Social Media Thoughtfully

two bored teenage girls look at their phonesA recent study out of University College London confirmed a very strong connection between social media use and depressive symptoms in teenagers. And this connection was much stronger in girls than in boys. (This does not mean that social media causes depression -- it just means that we know that children who use more social media have more depressive symptoms. More research needs to be done to figure out the reason behind this.)

The researchers looked at four explanations for why this might be. Poor sleep, online harassment, poor self-esteem, and poor body image all played a role.

My mind’s eye went immediately to my three wonderful, intelligent, strong and independent daughters, and to the social media apps that are such an integral part of their lives. My 15-year-old texts and video-chats with her friends through Snapchat, FaceTime and Whatsapp. My 13-year-old creates lip-syncing videos to share with her buddies via TikTok. And my 9-year-old immerses herself in a virtual zoological Animal Jam world of colorful biomes and customizable animals.

These apps provide positive experiences, such as socializing with friends, expressing emotions through creative cinematography, and learning facts about wildlife and its habitats. My little one often claims, “I’m so much better at typing now that I am using Animal Jam all the time!” Indeed, there is something to be said for the technical savvy that children are picking up as they navigate their way through social media landscapes that often baffle the older generation. If electronic communication is the way of the future, then it can be helpful to hone their digital skills at early ages.

In fact, there are a myriad of benefits to social media. The American Academy of Pediatrics lists a few: offering of opportunities for community engagement, such as political or charitable events; fostering of ideas through blogs, videos, podcasts and games; opening of doors to connect with people of diverse backgrounds in a much smaller and more interconnected global world; enhancing of learning opportunities as students gather together in group chats to work on homework or projects; and greater access to health information about topics that teens might otherwise not feel comfortable discussing with adults (such as mental or sexual health issues).

So there are pros and cons. This leaves us with so many questions. How do we parents find the balance? That sweet spot where they reap the benefits but are protected from the pitfalls? How much do we need to worry about impending depression or anxiety creeping up on them? How much time is too much time on social media? What can I do to mitigate these scary-sounding effects the devices might be having on my children?

I don’t have all the answers, but I do have some thoughts on how parents can help teens use social media thoughtfully and appropriately:

  • Create screen-free zones, such as bedrooms and kitchen tables. And screen-free times such as mealtime and before bedtime. This will help reduce the amount of time kids are on their devices and allow for better quality and quantity sleep. (The devices might need to be given a “curfew” to enforce this tactic. A charging station in the kitchen or other central room can also be a good spot to park the devices for the night.)
  • Open the lines of communication with your kids. Talk to them about their social media experiences. Educate them about the advantages and disadvantages. Have ongoing conversations about anything they want to talk about, and reassure them that you are the trusted adult they can turn to if/when they become mired in teenage angst.
  • Keep in mind that it is not only quantity, but quality, that is important. Keep abreast of the apps your children are using, and encourage them to use social media in positive ways.
  • Avoid banning, blocking or restricting your kids’ access to social media sites. This generally doesn’t work and may backfire if the forbidden fruit becomes so tempting that they simply use it behind your back.
  • Be a good example to your kids. Use your own devices less! Engage with your children, and on your own, in non-screen activities. Enjoy the outdoors, read a book, play a game, do some fun activities as a family. Wax nostalgic for the days of yore when smartphones didn’t exist but people still knew how to enjoy!

My three girls are living in the wild west of cyberspace, with a frontier that is open to exploration. I hope that I can help guide them to that sweet spot of not-too-much and not-too-little, so that they enjoy the positive without enduring the negative along the way.

Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD, is a visiting scholar with the Youth, Media & Wellbeing Research Lab at the Wellesley Centers for Women. She is also a pediatrician and medical editor at Nemours Children’s Health System's KidsHealth.org.

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Tips for Parents to Manage Kids’ Fortnite Obsession

Mother and son play video gamesVideo games are on my mind these days. Especially violent ones, like Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto. But special recognition goes to Fortnite, since as a mother and pediatrician, my interests lie in what is most popular among the children.

What is Fortnite? It’s an online multiplayer shooter game, in which 100 players are dropped onto an island where they are expected to attack other players while defending themselves. Eventually one player remains and is declared the winner.

What has brought Fortnite to my attention? First, I learned about the recent inaugural Fortnite World Cup in which over 40 million players participated, from more than 200 countries. It took place at a real stadium with an audience of almost 24,000 live viewers, and more than 2 million people watching from their electronic devices. If those numbers alone weren’t mind-boggling enough, the tournament offered a $30 million prize pool. Teenagers became millionaires overnight.

Next, I was recently privy to several online discussions among large groups of parents discussing the Fortnite phenomenon and how to rein it in. The minority of parents knew nothing of the game. There were a few parents who focused on the positive aspects of online games, such as opportunity for learning skills like conflict negotiation or hand-eye coordination, and the provision of a space to forge online communities and peer relationships. In fact, the concept of “social acceptance” was a recurring theme amongst the game’s advocates. A very small group of enthusiastic gamer parents even played together with their children and praised the game for teaching building know-how and springboarding discussions about budgeting and finances.

But the overwhelming majority of parents responded with a resounding “DON’T GO THERE!” Their concerns were varied. Some worried about the addictive component and excessive screen time exposure. Others feared online predators. But mostly it was the violent nature that gave them angst. While observing their children play, they noted emotional agitation, aggressive language, and trash talk. And this made them cringe. They collectively questioned the effect of exposure to virtual violence on their children’s overall mental health and wellbeing.

This was not only a topic for parenting forums, but for the media in general, following the devastating mass shootings that took place last month in Texas and Ohio. An alleged connection between video game and real world violence was cited yet again by lawmakers wanting to point a finger at factors that might be contributing to the preponderance of mass shootings in the U.S.

The blaming of video game culture led to a widespread media response noting that researchers thus far have not proven an absolute cause and effect link between video game violence and mass atrocities. Experts have pointed out that billions of people play video games in countries all over the world, yet do not suffer from the same gun violence as Americans have to contend with on a daily basis. In fact, countries such as Japan and South Korea have a much more intense gaming industry, but extremely low rates of violent crime and mass casualty events. One thing does seem clear, though- easy access to firearms, weak gun laws, and the sheer number of civilian-owned guns is unique to the U.S. and most likely a major contributing factor in the gun violence we see today.

Finally, in my capacity as visiting scholar in the Youth, Media & Wellbeing Research Lab at the Wellesley Center for Women, I am working with researchers to study the impact of social media on children and adolescents. This includes interactive games such as Fortnite. A recent study from this lab conducted by Dr. Linda Charmarmaran found that Fortnite gamers reported getting less sleep than non-players, a deprivation that can potentially compromise school performance.

So what are parents to do about their child’s Fortnite obsession? Here are some tips gleaned from experts in the fields of psychology and pediatrics:

  • Watch and play with your child to determine whether the game is appropriate for your child at this stage in their life.
  • Set limits about when and how much your child can play, so as not to interfere with more important activities, such as homework, sleep, physical activity, and real-life interactions with friends and family.
  • Talk about the feelings the game triggers in your child, and explain your values regarding violent behavior and conflict resolution.

My daughters don’t play Fortnite. But they have a very active online presence, and these tips will be on my mind as new apps and games dominate their world.

Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD, is a visiting scholar with the Youth, Media & Wellbeing Research Lab at the Wellesley Centers for Women. She is also a pediatrician and medical editor at Nemours Children’s Health System's KidsHealth.org.

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How the Power of Representation Transformed My Wellesley Experience

Budnampet RamanudomBy the end of my first year at Wellesley College, I knew that I wanted to explore the world of research. I had taken the first of many gender studies courses to come, and left class with a head full of questions that I not only wanted answers to, but wanted to take a stake at answering. A stroke of luck brought me to an event for students to meet with research scientists at the Wellesley Center for Women. A stroke of better luck brought me to Dr. Linda Charmaraman.

She was the only researcher I gravitated towards, the only researcher I left my resume with. Conducted research on media and identity? Check. Person of color? Check. Personable and inviting? Check, check, and check. One application, two interviews, and a letter of recommendation later, I was offered a position as a research assistant for the next school year. Little did I know that by accepting the offer, I would also be gaining an invaluable undergraduate experience shaped by inspiration, warmth, and empathy.

There is something really special about being able to work with someone who looks like you. This is something you often hear as a Wellesley College student, though its meaning is often one dimensional ( Women in politics! Women CEOs! Women in STEM!). I really came to understand the power of representation in two ways: when it became personal and when it became central to the research I was helping bring to life.

The power of representation became personal when I began to cultivate a mentor-mentee relationship with Linda. Our weekly/bi-weekly research check-ins were not only crucial for the advancement of the qualitative research we were conducting and my own research skills, but also for developing my own sense of worth and potential. Little by little, I was able to learn about Linda’s life and experiences, research and otherwise. I found out she was Thai (like me)! I found out that she also struggled in her undergraduate years (who knew that researchers were not perfect?). She spoke about her queerness in ways that normalized my own burgeoning questions about sexuality and gender. She validated my questions, hopes, and fears no matter how naive, incomplete, or overwhelming. I was learning so much from someone who shared my most salient identities - - from a successful academic whose work brimmed with passion. If she could do it, maybe I could too.

Themes surrounding representation were also crucial to the research that Linda was allowing me to take part in, providing an important link between the personal and the professional. In our new round of research, Linda entrusted me with the task of selecting the participants for our qualitative interview. I took a chance and spoke to Linda about my interest in highlighting South and Southeast Asian participants, knowing fully that this demographic/ group of people who looked like me seemed to be underrepresented in bodies of research. I will always remember the feeling of being able to capture the lived experiences of people who looked like me - - to be able to document their narratives in a way that emphasized the diversity of the Asian American community. In one interview session, a fellow Southeast Asian American student ended the interview with an emotional thank you. She told me that it meant so much for her to not only be able to contribute to a body of work that sought to capture her experiences, but to know that the academics themselves were also Southeast Asian. She told me that she had never seen herself in research papers. She told me that she was excited. Representation really matters. Representation has a real impact on real people.

Now at the tail-end of my Wellesley College experience, I now understand how lucky I was to be able to engage with such meaningful work so early in my academic life. I hope to be able to continue to contribute to the world of academia in a way that is similarly passionate and emotionally driven. I want to live my life knowing that I am actively working to raise the voices of those that are being systematically ignored. I hope to do all of this with the same kindness, patience, and grace that Linda has given me.

Budnampet ‘Pet’ Ramanudom ’18 was the Linda Coyne Lloyd Intern at the Wellesley Centers for Women during the 2015-16 academic year. She studies Computer Science and Women and Gender Studies at Wellesley College.

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Facebook: Friend or Foe

This blog post is reproduced with permission from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation in Princeton, NJ. It was first published on the Human Capital Blog.

If you were stressed out and wanted to vent to your friends about it, how would you let them know? Would you pick up the phone and talk, or text? Would you set up time to grab coffee or go for a brisk walk? Or would you post to Facebook why your day just couldn’t get any worse?

As I logged into the recent RWJF/NPR/Harvard School of Public Health-sponsored Stress in America discussion, I identified with the panelists who were dispelling stereotypes about “highly stressed” individuals being high-level executives or those at the top of the ladder. Instead of finding work-related stress as a top concern, as is often played out in the media and popular culture, the researchers were finding that individuals with health concerns, people with disabilities, and low-income individuals were experiencing the highest levels of stress. The panelists talked about the importance of qualities like resiliency and the ability to turn multiple, competing stressors into productive challenges to overcome, and the integral role of communities in shaping, buffering, and/or exacerbating stress.

We often consider our communities as living, working, playing in close physical proximity. But what about the online spaces? What about our opt-in networked friendship circles ... our cyber-audience who sign up to read our posts with mundane observations, proud revelations, and the occasional embarrassing photos?

Media coverage about social media has not been kind—often linking its use with cyberbullying, sexual predators, and depression or loneliness. But recent scholarship on new media demonstrates that interpersonal communication, online and offline, plays a vital role in integrating people into their communities by helping them build support, maintain ties, and promote trust. Social media is often used to escape from the pressures of life and alter moods, to secure an audience for self-disclosures, and to widen social networks and increase social capital. The Pew Research Internet Project found that adult Facebook users are more trusting than others, have more close, core ties with their social networks, and receive more social support than non-users.

So what if we asked adolescents the same question: “If you were having a bad day and wanted to let your friends know about it, how would you let them know?”

In our current research on media and identity, we purposively sampled more than 2,300 individuals aged 12 to 25 from 47 states and 26 countries. They took an online survey that investigated how vulnerable populations (such as racial/ethnic minorities, women, adolescents, people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, those with low social status) have used the Internet and social media in healthy and unhealthy ways, particularly during times of stress. We wanted to determine how and why supportive communities could exist in personal online networks that could increase one’s resiliency in the face of challenges.

We found that when young people want to talk about a bad day, they mainly preferred in-person (69%), texting (69%), or phone call (51%) methods to reach out for help. Social media was not utilized as often to talk about stressful times—with Facebook (29%) being more popular than Twitter (7%) overall.

The Stress in America poll results found that 19 percent of adults use social media more than usual during stressful times. In our study, adolescents were significantly more likely to post to Facebook networks about their bad days than emerging adults aged 18 to 25, which can indicate that there are generational differences in how new media can be supportive.

African American participants (19%) chose Twitter to report to their networks about a bad day more often, whereas Asian Americans (40%) used Facebook more often than people of any other race/ethnicity during times of stress.

A surprisingly large number of young people (under age 25) reported that they write blogs, from a low of 37 percent of Hispanic respondents to a high of 60 percent of Asian Americans respondents. Incidentally, individuals who have ever written a blog are more likely to report being unhappy or sad than non-bloggers. Perhaps being more public online about private matters helps adolescents to know that they are not alone in their battles with stress.

Further examination of the use of new media may help us develop prevention and intervention programs and tools to guide adolescents, their parents, educators, and health care workers, and to remind ourselves how the adolescent and emerging adult years can be stressful. Perhaps logging onto one’s Facebook community and jotting down one’s thoughts could be just the right kind of coping mechanism whenever the need arises.

Linda Charmaraman, Ph.D. is a research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College and a former National Institute of Child Health and Human Development postdoctoral scholar. She is a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) New Connections grantee, examining the potential of social media networks to promote resiliency in vulnerable populations.

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Mentoring & Girls of Color

EmpathyVideoMentoringBlog

Happy National Mentoring Month! Since 2002, each January has been a time to give mentoring a boost nationwide through the recruitment of individuals and organizations.

The documentary, It’s Our Time: The Empathy Gap for Girls of Color, by Wellesley Centers for Women Research Scientist Linda Charmaraman, Ph.D. and Rosa Lau, B.F.A., illustrates the powerful effect that mentoring can have in the lives of young people – especially girls of color. While more attention and resources have been guided toward young men of color in recent years, young women of color often end up overlooked, although they too have a great deal to gain from mentorship.

The stories told in It’s Our Time reveal what can happen in an environment where girls of color are the focus, as they were in the Boston-based Teen Voices program. Founded in 1988, Teen Voices was a magazine produced by teen girls, for teen girls. With the guidance of mentors, Teen Voices participants wrote and edited the magazine. They also had opportunities to present their knowledge through public speaking.

Many of the girls in the Teen Voices program felt that they weren’t getting as much attention in the classroom as their male counterparts. “[Teachers] don’t say ‘Oh good job on your last math test,’ because [a girl] consecutively gets good grades on her math tests. But when a boy does, it’s like a huge thing…they focus on the boys more than the girls.” says Teen Voices participant Denesha. She echoes the sentiment that is supported by research – girls feel that their instructors are more concerned with boys’ classroom achievement. When girls do better than boys academically, they are not rewarded with more attention. All too often, resources are diverted to boys who may not be succeeding at the same rate.

In the documentary, African American Policy Institute Co-Founder Kimberlé Crenshaw explains how this inequality flourishes. Public alarm, and therefore research, are focused on boys, and because the bulk of research covers boys, it appears to as if boys are in need of more help, creating a feedback loop in which girls and young women are left invisible.

It’s Our Time fits into the mission of encouraging girls and women by making them visible, but that is only one step. This National Mentoring Month, consider giving some of your time and attention to the young women in your community. This is especially important to girls who aren’t getting the recognition they deserve in a school environment.

Unfortunately, the story told in It’s Our Time includes the end of Teen Voices due to lack of funding. The documentary captures the very real consequences of silence and lack of advocacy for young girls. Better research on girls, pioneered by researchers like those at Wellesley Centers for Women, can lead the way to blogpullquoteGirlsofColorinstitutional changes. Until then, it is largely up to mentors to influence the capable and powerful young women who may otherwise slip through the (huge) cracks.

As a young woman of color, mentoring has been extremely important in my own life. My various mentors have encouraged me to try new things and have given me guidance on how to realize my dreams. As a Wellesley Centers for Women intern, I continue to be mentored by researchers who are interested in people like me, and who have conquered the challenges that I will face. Every young woman should have the same opportunity.

At the end of the documentary, Teen Voices Program Director Suan Green explains her hope for girls. “I think I want them to know that there are adults out there that care for them and that will fight for them and advocate for them, and that they don’t have to go through things alone, and that there’s someone who will listen, and someone who will advise them, and kind of go through the fire with them when they need it. “ As a mentor to girls, you can be that adult.

Temple Price is the 2012-2013 Wellesley Centers for Women Class of ’67 intern and a Wellesley College student majoring in Psychology (Class of 2013). The WCW-Teen Voices initiative was funded by the Schott Foundation for Public Education, and was supported by the Susan McGee Bailey Women's Perspectives Fund.

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