The Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) awarded the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) $450,000 over three years to study social media use of early adolescents while providing Wellesley College students with hands-on research opportunities. The longitudinal, multi-method study will investigate associations between middle school students’ social media use and health implications, as well as the roles of peer influence and parental monitoring.

Most social media platforms require users to be at least 13 years old, yet a 2010 study by the Pew Research Center found that 38 percent of nine to 12 year-olds have social media accounts. Linda Charmaraman, Ph.D., senior research scientist at WCW and principal investigator of the newly-funded NIH study, estimates that number may be higher now. In a recent pilot study she conducted on middle school student social media use, she found that in her sample, 68 percent of students aged 12 and under already had social media accounts.

Despite the growing number of early teens using social media, prior research published by institutions such as the American Academy of Pediatrics focus primarily on older teens. Little is known about risks for younger users in early adolescence when social media use typically starts.

“These early adolescents are at a particularly vulnerable point in their lives when their primary developmental tasks are to develop their own identities apart from their families and to belong to peer groups,” said Charmaraman who directs the Youth, Media, and Wellbeing Research Lab. “We need to better understand the specific behavioral and psychosocial risks they face when using social media at such a young age.”

Undergraduate students from Wellesley College will be central to the research process, a key focus of the NIH funding. The award, given through the R15 mechanism, is meant to expose undergraduate or graduate students to hands-on research and support the research environment of schools like Wellesley College that have not been major recipients of such NIH support in the past. This is the first R15 awarded to Wellesley College for social science research.

The undergraduate student researchers will assist in conducting surveys of over 800 middle school students, surveying a subsample of parents, and interviewing a subsample of middle school students. Analysis of those surveys and interviews will investigate demographics associated with early social media use, how social media use is related to psychosocial issues such as depression or anxiety, and behavioral outcomes including sleep, physical activity, substance use, or problematic internet behaviors, as well as the influence of parents and peers.

“Our goal is to inform how policymakers, educators, pediatricians, and families can address social media use and the ways it contributes to both positive and negative psychosocial and behavioral health outcomes in this understudied segment of the population,” said Charmaraman.

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