The Women Change Worlds blog of the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) encourages WCW scholars and colleagues to respond to current news and events; disseminate research findings, expertise, and commentary; and both pose and answer questions about issues that put women's perspectives and concerns at the center of the discussion.

WCW's Women Change Worlds Blog

Internship Reflection: Fathers Belong in Conversations with Their Teens about Sex and Relationships

Audrey DiMarco

At the beginning of my summer research internship, I’ll admit that I didn’t fully understand the impact of fathers talking to their teens about dating and sex. Why would fathers have a significant impact on teens’ sexual health if someone else, like their mother, already has the situation under control? However, after taking a deeper dive into Senior Research Scientist Jennifer M. Grossman, Ph.D.,’s interview data from fathers, mothers, and teens, I reevaluated my stance.

Through identifying key themes from the families in our sample, Dr. Grossman’s study—part of WCW’s Family, Sexuality, and Communication Research Initiative—aims to explore how fathers fit into conversations with their teens about dating and sex, and why it’s hard for some fathers to participate. The study’s findings will be used to develop an intervention program to help give fathers information, strategies, and peer support to surmount obstacles to talking with their teens and promote better sexual health for future generations.

Reflecting on my initial doubts, I can see why I didn’t have much faith in fathers’ ability to communicate with their teens—especially when it comes to taboo topics such as dating and sex. Women are often assumed to be more emotional, caring, and nurturing while fathers are assumed to have difficulty expressing their vulnerable side. Because of these pervasive stereotypes, it’s easy to see how mothers would be the ones to take the primary role and facilitate open conversations with their teens as they explore their sexuality.

Researchers may also lean into this assumption since the majority of prior studies on adolescent communication about dating and sex emphasize mothers’ roles. Even some mothers from our sample indicated that they should be the ones to take charge of these discussions—though they also resoundingly asserted that fathers’ roles are crucial. In the bigger picture, all of the familial support that teens can get in terms of dating and sex is shown to benefit their long-term health, but being mindful to include and value the male perspective could also prove beneficial to adolescents’ wellbeing and overall preparedness for healthy relationships.

That’s why I became especially interested in how fathers from our sample practice—or struggle to practice—open communication with their adolescents, as well as how teens from the same families picture an open dialogue.

In the bigger picture, all of the familial support that teens can get in terms of dating and sex is shown to benefit their long-term health, but being mindful to include and value the male perspective could also prove beneficial to adolescents’ wellbeing and overall preparedness for healthy relationships.

Fathers from our sample overwhelmingly said they believed that support and connection are important parts of their roles, and open communication is one way to foster these values. Specifically, dads saw it as their duty to give their sons tried-and-true advice that would help them avoid making the same mistakes they did. Additionally, some emphasized the benefits of giving daughters a window into the teenage boy’s perspective to help them better understand their potential dating partners.

Since the stereotypical teenager avoids talking to their parents at all costs, it might be surprising that teens also want open conversations with their dads. Over half of teens from our sample viewed support and connection, including open communication, as part of a father’s role. They wanted their dad to share his advice and experience, providing emotional support while respecting their comfort level and boundaries. A notable focus of the teen perspective is that they didn’t want to be judged or punished for sharing something of which their parents disapprove, such as being sexually active earlier than their family values dictate. As a whole, the data showed that both fathers and teens see some form of open dialogue as part of a father’s role in conversations about dating and sex.

Then why is it hard for many fathers to participate and share their advice? Fathers face many barriers such as embarrassment, discomfort, lack of support, and taboos. One obstacle that stands out to me is that some fathers lack an example from their own parents of how to approach these sensitive topics. The majority of fathers from our sample didn’t talk much or at all with their parents about dating and sex; instead, they learned through siblings, extended family, friends, or even through the media. In many ways, fathers are swimming upstream, trying to be more involved than their parents’ generation while lacking the tools and support they need.

Despite the challenges inhibiting fathers’ involvement in these discussions, many dads in our sample fought these barriers in order to support their teen’s best interests. In doing so, they stood up to the stereotypes, giving their children a healthy example by recognizing their own value and the power of their voice as a father. I’m hopeful that access to resources, such as the intervention program we plan to develop, will give fathers the tools they need to practice open communication and share what they learned from their teenage years. If the fathers of today set a healthy example for their teens, the fathers of tomorrow will be better equipped to talk with and support their children—making an impact that continues for generations to come.


Audrey DiMarco is a psychology major at Wellesley College graduating in 2024. She had the opportunity to work with Senior Research Scientist Jennifer M. Grossman, Ph.D., this past summer through the Class of 1967 Internship Program.

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The Unique Struggles and Triumphs of Latinx Adolescents Using Digital Technology

Bri Vigil and Jennifer Miranda, Wellesley College students

This post was written by Jennifer Miranda and Bri Vigil, recent graduates of Wellesley College who took a Calderwood Seminar on public writing taught by WCW Senior Research Scientist Linda Charmaraman, Ph.D.

When it comes to social media and digital technology, it’s important to understand how the experiences of different groups of people can vary widely. We know from both existing research and our personal experiences that the role these technologies play in the lives of Latinx people is particularly unique and worthy of further study. For example, research from the Youth, Media & Wellbeing Research Lab demonstrates that Latinx adolescents start using social media younger than their white counterparts, which can expose this subgroup of teens to behavioral difficulties in relation to things like sleep disruption and increase their risk for negative mental health symptoms. Many Latinx kids face a lack of guidance on tech use, making it difficult for them to have a healthy and rewarding relationship with technology.

But studies on interactions between technology and adolescents often neglect the varying social capital of adolescents from different backgrounds and experiences. We both grew up in Latinx households, and carry many memories of figuring out how to quickly work with technology in order to help our non-English speaking parents. Just like us, there are a multitude of Latinx adolescents in the U.S. who have one or two immigrant parents who require aid in navigating the digital world.

Dr. Carmen Gonzalez, a researcher and professor at the University of Washington who focuses on digital equity and health communication, describes the struggle that Latinx adolescents experience because of the dependency their parents have on them. They are often forced to learn how to complete tasks that others their age won’t have to deal with for many more years to come, sometimes ever: reading, interpreting, and translating government documents; sending emails to their parents’ bosses; communicating with other family members over social media; paying bills; and generally knowing how to advocate for themselves, their parents, and other loved ones within societal systems. These adolescents serve as a sort of “broker” between their parents and U.S. society in the digital world. Gonzalez describes how this interaction with technology negatively impacts adolescents and often creates frustration and resentment toward their parents, because they are not able to interact with others online in the manner that they would want to.

We both grew up in Latinx households, and carry many memories of figuring out how to quickly work with technology in order to help our non-English speaking parents.

Despite that, as adults and looking back on our experiences with this, we wouldn’t change it for the world. Before turning 15 years old, we both knew how to read tax documents and communicate through email in a manner that not all of our peers were able to. However, again and again, research in this field omits mention of the social capital that experiences like ours led us to gain. Ultimately, there are nuances that come along with the experiences of minority children—specifically Latinx children with one or two immigrant parents—that many studies fail to consider.

There is a great need for further studies on the experiences of minority, first-generation American adolescents navigating technology and social media. The social capital present in this community should be acknowledged and appreciated rather than continuing to ignore the ways in which technology positively shapes one of the largest groups of adolescents in our country. We hope that others of similar backgrounds see their experiences reflected in us, and that there is more research on and acknowledgment of our very real and pertinent struggles and triumphs in the realm of digital technology.


Jennifer Miranda is a member of the Wellesley College Class of 2022 who majored in computer science and education. Bri Vigil is also a member of the Class of 2022 and majored in data science and Latinx studies.

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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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Internship Reflection: Studying How Extended Family Members Talk to Teens About Sex and Relationships

Nora Pearce, Wellesley College StudentSex education in the American public school system varies from state to state and from school district to school district. The lack of standardized sex education makes family education and conversations about sex and relationships all the more important for teenagers and their development. It is often assumed that parents are the default—that they are the only family members responsible for initiating these conversations. In my research conducted with WCW Senior Research Scientist Jennifer M. Grossman, Ph.D., and Research Associate Amanda M. Richer, M.A., on how extended family members talk to teens about sex and relationships, we learned how communication about these topics spans beyond parents.

For this qualitative study, we interviewed 39 participants in the U.S. who identified themselves as extended family members who talk to a teen in their family about sex or relationships. (We include siblings in the extended family member category because studies suggest there are significant similarities in the way siblings and cousins talk about sex or relationships with teens.) Within our sample, participants reported a wide range of involvement in the teen’s sexuality development. Their diverse experiences showed us that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to talking about sex or relationships with teens.

More than 90% of our participants reported that having a personal connection with the teen enabled them to talk about sex and relationships. One of our participants, Jennifer, recounted how she once asked her teenage cousin if she talks with other family members about these topics. “She’s like ‘No,’ she doesn’t feel comfortable telling them anything,” shared Jennifer. “And she feels more comfortable with me. Because we just have that connection.” Qualities such as trust and closeness resonated with other participants who said their close connection with the teen was key to their open conversations.

Some of the extended family members we interviewed coordinated with other family members on what messages they wanted to convey. Lucy and her sisters decided together that they needed to ensure their brother knew about the health risks of being sexually active. “We actually made a slideshow about, um, the different, you know, sexually transmitted diseases and infections,” she said. “And we included — I mean it had to be graphic, but we really wanted to get the point across of, like, why I buy the condoms every month. It’s just you have to protect yourself. So we made him sit down and, like, go through all of our slides.” Other participants said that they were the primary or even the only family member who would talk to the teen about sex or relationships.

Working on this research project prompted me to reflect on my own position in my family network. Reading the interviews inspired me to be more open and intentional in talking about sex or relationships with my teenage cousin. My conversations with her came at a critical time when she was receiving unhealthy and unhelpful messages from other family members about sex or relationships. Building off of our pre-existing family bond and knowing well her family history and living situation, our conversations felt more meaningful and effective for both of us.

This research is an invitation for everyone to reflect on their own family networks and the communication that takes place in the family about sex and relationships. Because as extended family members, we can play a critical and positive role in the lives of teens by having these conversations, even during the pandemic.

To learn more about this study, watch my short video about our findings or check out the article I co-authored with the researchers in the journal Sexes.


Nora Pearce is a student at Wellesley College pursuing a degree in Education Studies and Art History. She was awarded the Morse Fellowship to intern with Dr. Jennifer M. Grossman at the Wellesley Centers for Women for the 2019-2020 academic year.

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Parents' Communication with Teens About Dating is Changing During the Pandemic

Father talking to daughter on couchThe pandemic has altered family life in unexpected ways. Some kids are happier now that they’ve gotten a chance to slow down; more people are cooking; and men have discovered housework. Parents’ conversations with their teens about dating and relationships, and their monitoring of their teens’ behavior, have also changed.

My research team — which included WCW Associate Research Scientist Lisette M. DeSouza, Ph.D., WCW Research Associate Amanda M. Richer, and Alicia Doyle Lynch, Ph.D., of Lynch Research Associates — surveyed 328 parents of high school students throughout the U.S. between March and June of this year. We asked questions about how they communicated with their teens about dating and relationships before schools closed due to COVID-19 as compared to afterwards. We also asked questions about their stress levels and whether and how they monitored their teens’ behavior.

What we found was a significant drop in parent-teen communication about dating and relationships once COVID hit. This makes sense: parents reported higher stress levels as many deal with sick family members, essential work requirements, financial difficulties, and the general anxiety of the pandemic, which likely leads them to focus on the immediate day-to-day needs of their families and put off these types of conversations. And with many teens stuck at home, parents may assume that relationships and physical intimacy in particular are on hold, so the need to talk about them is not as critical.

For example, one parent explained, “Having the added stress of constantly being together, and now having to not only be his parent, but his makeshift teacher, and then trying to talk about serious things too, has all been just too much.” Another parent shared, “The fact that kids are not interacting, thus there is no "dating" taking place, which is a little bit more difficult to talk about and put in context when it isn't happening.”

We also found an interesting change in gender roles among heterosexual parents. Mothers reported having fewer conversations with their teens about dating and relationships, and fathers reported monitoring their teens’ behavior more closely than before the pandemic. This increase in fathers’ monitoring may in part reflect fathers’ shift from working outside the home to being at home during the pandemic (61% of fathers made this transition compared to 39% of mothers). While mothers are still monitoring and communicating more than fathers, it may be that since many fathers are spending more time at home, parents’ roles have shifted, and fathers are taking a more active part in their teens’ lives.

More research is needed to delve into what this data means, but it’s an important reminder that parenting roles aren’t set in stone. Sometimes a crisis can prompt unpredictable and even positive changes. The way parents have communicated with and monitored their teens in the past doesn’t necessarily dictate their future actions. Thinking outside the box can help; though mothers are often assumed to be the ones in charge of having these conversations, my research has shown that fathers play an important role, as do extended families.

October is National Family Sexuality Education Month, which is as good a time as any to reassess family communication about dating and relationships. Even if teens are at home, they’re likely chatting with peers online, and may be forming new relationships or continuing existing ones. They may have different questions now about what’s appropriate or comfortable in a relationship. Maybe it’s time to start a conversation with them, and consider with fresh eyes who might have that conversation.

Jennifer Grossman, Ph.D., is a senior research scientist who leads the Family, Sexuality, and Communication Research Initiative 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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The Lessons We Should Learn from Settlement Houses

Hull House in Chicago during the 1900sAs a country we seem to be moving far away from the nurturing and sustaining activity of the settlement houses of our past. The first settlement house, established in New York City’s Lower East Side – Neighborhood Guild – was founded by Stanton Coit, and just a few years later came Hull House in Chicago, materializing through the passionate vision of Jane Addams. Settlement houses were the cornerstone of communities as they over time took on the task of educating citizens, providing English language classes for immigrants, organizing employment connections, and offering enrichment and recreation opportunities to all in the neighborhood. A most significant beginning to the current child and youth development field, settlement houses provided childcare services for the children of working mothers. The Immigrants’ Protective League, The Juvenile Protective Association, The Institute for Juvenile Research, The Federal Children’s Bureau, along with Child Labor Laws can all trace back to the persistent national efforts of settlement house founders and advocates.

Today, the health and wellbeing of thousands of children are in peril.It has long been established in the field of child and youth development that caring relationships are key factors in the positive and healthy development of children and youth. Separating children from their primary caring relationship--their parents--is critically detrimental and traumatizing. To grow up healthy and be productive citizens of whatever community and country they attach to, children need to acquire, practice, and effectively apply the skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions. Adolescents who were besieged by trauma as children cannot undertake successfully the daily tasks of growing-up. Nor can a hostile environment possibly support positive mental health and trust in adults, for even the youngest. The president of the American Academy of Pediatrics has suggested that “children torn from their parents experience serious short- and long-term health consequences.”

Decades of research in the child and youth development fields have made it clear that children need to be surrounded by appropriate structure, safety, supportive relationships, skill-building, high expectations, continuity, and predictability. It is imperative that we do not detach ourselves from these important tenets of caring for all children. We could use the more collective and holistic approach of the settlement house in our methods of organizing immigration. Former first lady, Laura Bush has asked, “In 2018, can we not as a nation find a kinder, more compassionate and more moral answer to this current crisis?” I believe we can and we must--immediately.

Georgia Hall, Ph.D., is director of the National Institute on Out-of-School Time and associate director of the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College. Hall specializes in research and evaluation on youth development programs, settings, and learning experiences.

 

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13 Reasons Why and the Need for Correct Messages About Teen Depression and Suicide

By now, parents and professionals have reacted to the new Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why. Mental health advocates and school administrators have highlighted the risks of depicting suicide as a means of revenge, of dramatizing teen suicide, and of showing school counselors as uncaring and ineffective. I would be remiss if I did not add my voice to others' by expressing my dismay that this program exposes teens to such unhealthy messages about such an important topic, and that teen depression is presented as a malady that can only be addressed through suicide.

Rather than repeating the many critiques of this series, my purpose here is to share correct messages about adolescent depression and suicide that we, as professionals and parents, should know and should be sharing with our children. Of course this is a difficult topic to broach with adolescents, but given that so many teens have watched this series already, we must embrace this opportunity to teach our children, and ourselves, about youth depression and suicide. This conversation is particularly important now, in the midst of Mental Health Awareness Month.

In fact, suicide is the third leading cause of death among adolescents, and rates of suicidal thinking and behavior are particularly high among Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual youth. While youth depression and youth suicide are distinct concerns, approximately half of all teens that die by suicide have a mood disorder, such as depression, at the time. Adolescent depression is quite common, with approximately 11 percent of all teens experiencing depression during adolescence. Although youth depression is prevalent and impairing, we now have available numerous depression prevention and treatment protocols that work. Thus, most teens who struggle with depression go on to lead healthy and productive lives.

How do we know if a teen might be experiencing depression or considering suicide? Among other symptoms, signs of youth depression include low mood or irritability, lack of interest in activities, a change to sleep or eating patterns, reduced concentration, fatigue, low self-esteem, and thoughts of death or suicide. Of course all teens experience such symptoms now and then. We worry about teens that experience a cluster of these symptoms, and when these symptoms persist over a period of at least two weeks.

Likewise, we worry about teens that exhibit signs of suicide. Sometimes these signs are subtle, such as giving away prized possessions, withdrawing from friends, or exhibiting significant behavioral changes, such as intense fights with family and friends. Teens thinking about suicide may also provide verbal cues, such as, “I wish I were dead” and “It’s not worth it anymore.” Also, many people who contemplate suicide do so because they believe they are a burden to others, and that they will be doing others a favor if they are no longer here. Thus, if you hear a teen say, “My family would be better off without me,” it is important to take action. Remember that 50-70 percent of people who make a suicide attempt communicate their intent prior to acting, mostly through such actions or verbal cues. Thus, if you recognize any of these signs, it is important to ASK. Although many of us find it scary to ask about suicide, or worry that asking about suicide will give someone the idea to attempt suicide, we know from numerous studies that talking about suicide will not lead to suicidal behavior.

How do you ask a teen if s/he might be thinking about suicide? Ask the question directly. It is okay to ask a teen if s/he has ever felt like it would be better if they were dead, or if, when very upset, they have experienced suicidal thoughts. If a teen acknowledges suicidal thoughts, s/he should be provided reassurance that help is available, and should be brought for an evaluation and treatment immediately. It’s important to remember that most people who talk about suicide do not really want to die. In fact, most suicides are not impulsive acts, and most people who contemplate suicide give many cues of their intentions, making suicide a largely preventable form of death in the United States.

The primary danger of 13 Reasons Why is that it reinforces damaging myths about youth depression and suicide. Now that this series has been released, and knowing that our teens may well have watched it, our best course of action is to counter those damaging myths by sharing important truths about teen depression and suicide.

Tracy Gladstone, Ph.D. is an associate director and senior research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College, as well as the director of the Robert S. and Grace W. Stone Primary Prevention Initiatives, which focus on research and evaluation designed to prevent the onset of mental health concerns in children and adolescents.

References:

Avenevoli, S., Swendsen, J., He, J., Burstein, M., & Merikangas, K. R. (2015). Major depression in the national comorbidity survey–adolescent supplement: Prevalence, correlates, and treatment. Journal of The American Academy Of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 54(1), 37-44. doi:10.1016/j.jaac.2014.10.010
Berkowitz, Larry (2017). Suicide Assessment and Intervention Training for Mental Health Professionals [PowerPoint slides]. NEAS, 2400 Post Road, Warwick, RI.
Burton, C. M., Marshal, M. P., Chisolm, D. J., Sucato, G. S., & Friedman, M. S. (2013). Sexual minority-related victimization as a mediator of mental health disparities in sexual minority youth: A longitudinal analysis. Journal of youth and adolescence, 42(3), 394-402.
Gould, M.S., Marrocco, F.A., Kleinman, M., Thomas, J.G., Mosstkoff, K., Cote, J., & Davies, M. (2005). Evaluating iatrogenic risk of youth suicide screening programs: A randomized controlled trial. JAMA, 293(13), 1635-43.
Joiner, T. (2009). The interpersonal-psychological theory of suicidal behavior: Current empirical status. Psychological Science Agenda, 23(6).
Kann, L., Kinchen, S., Shanklin, S. L., Flint, K. H., Hawkins, J., Harris, W. A., ... & Whittle, L. (2014). Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance--United States, 2013. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). Surveillance Summaries. Volume 63, Number SS-4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Nadworny, E. (2016). Middle School Suicides Reach an All-Time High. www.NPR.org
Nock, M.K., Green, J.G., Hwang, I., McLaughlin, K.A., Sampson, N.A., Zaslavsky, A.M., & Kessler, R.C. (2013). Prevalence, correlates, and treatment of lifetime suicide behavior among adolescents: results from the Nation Comorbidity Survey Replication Adolescent Supplement. JAMA Psychiatry, 70(3), 300-10.
QPR Institute. QPR Online Gatekeeper Training for ORGANIZATIONS [Training modules]. Retrieved from https://www.qprinstitute.com/organization-training
Robins, E., Gassner, S., Kayes, J., Wilkinson Jr, R. H., & Murphy, G. E. (1959). The communication of suicidal intent: a study of 134 consecutive cases of successful (completed) suicide. American Journal of Psychiatry, 115(8), 724-733.
The JED Foundation. (2017). 13 Reasons Why: Talking Points [Leaflet]. Retrieved from https://www.jedfoundation.org/13-reasons-why-talking-points/
World Health Orgranization. (2004, September 8). Suicide huge but preventable public health problem, says WHO [Online forum post]. Retrieved from WHO Media centre website: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2004/pr61/en/

 

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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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WCW Blog

 

Views expressed on the Women Change Worlds blog are those of the authors and do not represent the views of the Wellesley Centers for Women or Wellesley College nor have they been authorized or endorsed by Wellesley College.

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