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Tuesday, February 07, 2023
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UW-Madison professors research social media effects on teens

The rush of self-assurance and validation when your post is met with positive comments is a sensation anyone who ever posted on social media can relate to. However, there’s a self-deprecating feeling and sense of rejection that comes with a lack of praise, festering itself within the world of cyberbullying. 

Teenagers live and breathe social media, and the negative effects of these platforms can have a strong, long-term impact on teenagers’ mental and physical health. Chris Cascio, an assistant professor of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, with an extensive background in neuroscience, is hoping to learn more about teens’ experiences on social media platforms. 

“I think the overall goal is to see that there's mixed literature on whether social media is good for teens or bad for teens. And, I think research is really inconsistent,” Cascio said. “Is it harmful? Is it beneficial? I don’t think we have a good answer to that yet. We’re hoping to better understand how people use it, and is it positive? Is it negative?” 

Cascio, along with Dr. Megan Moreno and Dr. Ellen Selkie, professors of pediatrics in the UW School of Medicine and Public Health, have been backed by a new five-year, $7.5 million research grant to navigate how the complex world of social media impacts adolescence. 

“Social exclusion, inclusion and exclusion, seems to be a big component of the social media environment… people can feel isolated and by themselves if they post something and no one responds to it, particularly during teen years,” Cascio said. “Looking at the brain kind of gives us this objective measure of neural sensitivity to these things. And that’s what I’m hoping to be able to look at and see. Is there a connection between use, wellbeing and health depending on how sensitive people are to these types of broader social experiences?” 

Cascio said the team will recruit 400 teenagers and track the cohort’s social media use over a two-year period, focusing on the images and words teens are posting and the types of feedback those posts receive. They will scan the brains of participants transitioning from middle to high school to measure how they react to the different situations they encounter on social media, Cascio explained. 

The grant started in September, and the team is currently working to prepare for data collection, which they estimate will begin in January. According to Cascio, participants will go through an initial appointment where he and his team collect baseline information about participants’ health and wellbeing. Six months later, the team will then scan participants to see if anything has changed in their response to social inclusion or exclusion depending on how they’ve been using social media over the two year period. Cascio, Selkie and Moreno plan to connect with participants on up to four social media accounts and collect data on everything they post, from their comments to peers’ reactions. 

“We’re hoping our findings can help guide the way we talk to teens and their parents about healthy digital technology use,” Selkie said. “The research may also be useful for policymakers and people who design digital technology to make these platforms into better experiences for the youth.” 

Cascio and his team hope to use their research to understand how we can intervene for those who have bad experiences with social media and develop a negative wellbeing or demonstrate unhealthy behaviors over time. 

“What I’m really interested in is social exclusion– you know, the ‘you can’t sit with us’ kind of thing,” Cascio explained in a press release. “What does your online environment look like? Is it nurturing or is it isolating? Do kids have a supportive environment where, if they post something, they get lots of support from peers and family? How does social media isolation work and how do you navigate the nuances?” 

Ultimately, Cascio said he is excited to take his research in a new direction — into an ever-evolving world of social media. He hopes to discover some positive ways to intervene when social media has a negative impact on teens’ wellbeing. 

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