When Frances Haugen alleged that Facebook, now known as
Meta, knew its social media platforms were harmful to the
mental health of adolescents, she renewed attention to two
key trends within the U.S. The first is the trend toward near
ubiquitous use of mobile devices and social media among adolescents.
The second is the rise in struggles with mental health among adolescents,
including rising rates of major depression and suicidality. A substantially
large body of research has accumulated over the past two decades that
seeks to identify mechanisms linking the two trends. How large? When
several studies investigate similar outcomes, researchers conduct
systematic reviews and meta-analyses to summarize overall trends in
findings. The number of studies conducted on this topic is so large that
we are now seeing a new tier of summaries called umbrella reviews,
which are summaries of systematic reviews and meta-analyses. In other
words, we have numerous summaries of these research studies, and then
we have summaries of these summaries because they are so numerous.
Despite what seems at times like an oversaturation of
studies asking similar questions, there remains a critical
gap: few studies examine adolescents from communities of
color and of those, even fewer study Latino adolescents.
The gap in research is surprising for several reasons.
Latino adolescents have a higher rate of social media use
than their White counterparts. Moreover, they face greater
risks of experiencing adverse mental health outcomes
and face steeper barriers to accessing mental health care,
including the stigma of being labeled a mentally ill person
and potential concerns about how their own legal status
or that of their guardians may impact receiving care.
Over the past three years, I have made a concerted effort to
address this gap and I plan to build on this work when I join
Michigan State University in January 2023, in the Department
of Media and Information. My work has been funded by a wide
range of agencies and foundations, including one run by Meta,
which shows how eager people are to hear the voices of these
adolescents. Indeed, this work has uncovered the uniqueness of
Latino adolescents and how useful their perspectives are to
understanding more broadly the nature of the relationship
between technology use and mental health among adolescents.
For example, my research team and I conducted interviews
with over 40 Latino adolescents about their social media
use and mental health. Each interview lasted an hour to
an hour and a half. Several questions were geared toward
understanding the relationship between mental health
and social media use, and the potential implications. The
interviewees identified several ways that social media can
harm mental health, like providing an additional avenue
for bullying. Notably, they also discussed scenarios where
the causal arrow went the opposite direction; that is, where
they noticed peers who were struggling with mental health
turning to social media to access support and cope.
At times, this was described as histrionic and driven solely by a
need to attract attention, but they collectively understood a key
barrier that Latino adolescents face: sometimes they have no
one else to turn to. Mental health is a taboo topic among Latino
communities, and so they felt that some of their peers may not feel
comfortable going to their own families for help. Some said these
individuals should really be going to a therapist or at least a school
counselor but noted that this may be difficult without getting
marked as “different” by others. They expressed concerns about
how families would react and also about the speed at which gossip
about their mental health would spread across the school. Those
who were struggling with mental health generally would not make
a public post that could get read by anyone, but rather would make
posts that were targeted toward a narrow set of close friends they
could trust. An in-person conversation was seen as more ideal but
given that their schedules were often controlled by adults, this
was not always an option. Social media was therefore a lifeline
for some Latino adolescents who struggle with mental health.
This is an important and often overlooked point in discussions
about the relationship between social media and mental
health among adolescents. I have participated in several
high school events to provide expertise and answer families’
questions about social media and mental health, and too often
I come across an assumption that social media only harms.
Yes, it can cause harm, but it can also be beneficial, and this
research on Latino adolescents helps drive home the point.
Given how common adolescents like themselves share mental
health struggles on social media, we wanted to know how best
to support them. We asked them who they would turn to if
they were concerned about a friend who, based on their social
media account, may be struggling with mental health. The logic
here is that we wanted to get a picture of the current mental
health resources available to them. To do this, we created a
card sorting task. Each card represented something a friend of
theirs could share that they are struggling with on social media.
The content of the cards were items that are either wellbeing
concerns – like self-harm – or issues that could escalate into
wellbeing concerns, like getting into trouble with authorities
like teachers and law enforcement.
We asked the interviewees to separate the items into
different piles: those they would tell an adult about and
those they would not. We then asked them to discuss general
rules guiding their decisions. Participants were asked
via open-ended questions what adult they would tell and
why, and also which ones they would not tell and why.
Parents and guardians were the most common choice for an adult
they would tell. The interviewees recognized the instrumental
support that these adults could provide, such as operating as
gatekeepers to mental health care. They felt that if the friend
needed access to a mental health professional, an adult like a
parent or guardian would be the best choice for mediating access.
However, not every interviewee would turn to parents or
guardians for help and several gave reasons for why they would
avoid telling them. These included concerns that the post would
not be taken seriously by the adult.
Others, particularly boys, were concerned that a parent or
guardian would get angry and make the situation worse.
What matters here is not whether the parents or guardians
would actually respond this way, but that Latino adolescents
are worried that they would, which then diminishes the
likelihood that they would reach out to them in the first place.
My research team and I are grateful we were able to gather
such rich data from Latino adolescents. We took several steps
to gain access to the Latino community and engender trust,
which was particularly important given the possibility that some
adolescents or members of their families were undocumented. We
collaborated with a non-profit organization, United Community
Center, which serves the Latino community in Milwaukee,
Wisconsin and regularly mediates access by researchers. Prior to
data collection, they helped us convene a focus group of 10 Latino
adolescents, which met at the organization, to provide feedback
on our study design and assist in making our questions accessible.
This step was important for understanding how best to talk about
mental health in ways that limits viewing it as a taboo topic and
stifling conversation. The focus group also helped us select the
topics to be included in the card sorting task. We revised the
study based on their feedback and recruited participants from
a youth program run by the organization. The interviews were
held in a quiet, private room located in the organization, during
a time that the adolescent was already scheduled to participate
in the youth program. Collaborating with this community
organization was integral to our ability to address gaps in existing
research by incorporating the experiences of Latino youth.
A focus on working with a specific community does raise
questions about how well the findings generalize and depict
broader patterns among adolescents. We were able to conduct
two national surveys here in the U.S. to evaluate how well these
findings from this specific community generalize. In the first
survey, we recruited adolescents from across the U.S., creating
a sample that is racially diverse. This allows us to examine
the degree to which the patterns observed in the interviews
are unique to Latino adolescents. It turns out they are quite
unique. We gave survey respondents a scenario describing a
friend who, based on their social media account, was likely
experiencing depression and then asked them who they would
turn to in order to help out their friend. The scenario was
based on a standard text used in previous surveys, including
the General Social Survey, to describe someone experiencing
symptoms consistent with depression. We conducted cognitive
interviews with adolescents to modify it in ways that aligned
with their own expectations for how the scenario would unfold.
We found that Latino adolescents were the least likely of any
racial group to say they would turn to a parent or guardian.
The concerns we found in the interview study, then, appear
particularly salient for Latino adolescents across the U.S.
The second survey is of parents and guardians of adolescents
in the U.S. We gave them a similar scenario, whereby
we asked them to imagine their adolescent child came
to them and said that, based on social media, they were
concerned about a friend. We asked them how likely they
would help. Interestingly, we did not find any ethnoracial
variation in the reported willingness to provide help.
Indeed, everyone said they would be highly likely to help.
The results of these studies reveal a discrepancy, in which
Latino adolescents think their parents and guardians would
not help, but the parents and guardians are just as likely as
everyone else to say they would help. The next step in this
research program is to work with families to understand
and address the source of these discrepancies, and so we
are currently talking to various community organizations
and are planning on prepping research proposals to develop
materials to encourage communication among Latino
families to address this issue, and better prepare parents and
guardians for operating as gatekeepers to mental health care.
This trajectory of research papers would not have been possible
without the initial input from the focus group comprised of
Latino adolescents that my research team and I held at the
United Community Center to gather input on the design of the
interview study. A recent review of research on adolescents
found that only 1 out of 8 studies bothered to ask adolescents
about their input on research into their lives. Gathering their
input is critical to ensure researchers identify ways to approach
taboo topics like mental health. Moreover, given the speed at
which technologies change, it is important to also learn from
them about the most recent ways they use technologies.
To address the dearth of research conducted with their
perspectives, my collaborators and I have recently founded a
youth advisory board, which is like a standing focus group that
will provide input on various research projects. The board is
currently known as the Milwaukee Youth Wellness Initiative on
Technology (MYWIT). We purposely recruited adolescents from
communities of color to join as youth advisors. Currently, MYWIT
is comprised of 6 youth advisors (one who identifies as Asian,
three who identify as Black, and two who identify as Latino),
who have committed to participate for 12 months. In exchange
for their input, we are providing them with a stipend and several
professional development opportunities, including writing an
editorial about their thoughts on the link between social media
use and mental health. We also have plans and funding to invite
professionals from communities of color to speak with them and
share their own experiences navigating college and careers.
MYWIT meets virtually to make it easier for the youth
advisors to fit meetings into their schedules throughout
the year. This of course introduces a barrier, in that
some potential youth advisors may steer away from this
opportunity because they do not have access to high-speed
internet or an internet-enabled device. Thankfully, we have
funding to provide these to any youth advisors in need.
MYWIT is currently providing feedback on the design of a
new research study that is funded by Meta, in which we are
examining how best to design a chatbot that identifies when
adolescents experience bullying on social media and deploys
social support. We are conducting focus groups with adolescents
from across the U.S. who are racially diverse. Targeting bullying
is interesting for several reasons. First, bullying can harm the
mental health of adolescents, specifically leading to depression
and self-harm, and so a chatbot could facilitate accessing care.
Second, given the patterns found in the interview study and
survey showing that Latino adolescents are trepid about reaching
out to parents and guardians, alternative channels of support are
needed. Third, there are ethnoracial disparities in the impact of
bullying, in that its harmful effects on mental health are more
pronounced among minoritized ethnoracial groups. A chatbot
could therefore address these disparities in mental health while
also helping mitigate inequities in access to mental health care.
Despite the potential, there exists a fourth reason bullying is
so interesting, which is that there is a risk of not being able to
identify and address these disparities. Other research indicates
that members of minoritized ethnoracial groups have a higher
threshold for behaviors that they would consider bullying. In
other words, given the same behavior, such as calling someone
a name on social media, there would likely be variation across
ethnoracial lines regarding whether this behavior would be
considered bullying. Minoritized ethnoracial groups would be less
likely to say this is bullying, because they have a higher threshold
for what constitutes bullying. Furthermore, within these groups,
boys tend to be more likely to exhibit a higher threshold than girls.
Researchers currently do not have a good understanding
for why distinct thresholds exist. Part of it may be due to
ethnoracial variation in family socialization and experiences.
For example, families within communities of color tend to be
a source of bullying for adolescents, such as making negative
comments about their physical appearance and body weight.
This suggests the distinct thresholds may be due to adolescents
from communities of color being more likely to normalize
bullying. However, this does not explain why the effects of
bullying are more pronounced for these same adolescents,
because if bullying was more normalized, then it should follow
that the impact of bullying on mental health would be muted.
While the underlying process is not clear, the implications for
designing a chatbot are, which is that the chatbot should be
sensitive to ethnoracial variation in what constitutes bullying.
This speaks to larger issues in the development of artificially
intelligent agents, which is the risk of racial bias if the agent –
the chatbot in this case – does not consider such variation in the
ways people would label a behavior as bullying. Additionally,
because boys and girls also have distinct thresholds, the
research problem highlights the importance of taking an
intersectional approach when examining ethnoracial variation.
Over the next few years, I will be leading an interdisciplinary
team that takes the findings from the focus groups to begin
designing and testing the chatbot. I am particularly excited to
join the Department of Media and Information because of the
interdisciplinary approach to research that the faculty embrace.
MYWIT will continue to provide feedback throughout the
process of designing and testing the chatbot, along with other
projects. I plan on recruiting adolescents from communities
of color around Michigan to join MYWIT and will rebrand it as
the Midwest Youth Wellness Initiative on Technology to retain
the same acronym. I am interested in recruiting youth from the
Lansing and Detroit areas, as well as from the growing population
of migrant communities in the Western part of Michigan. By
expanding who is engaged in the research process, this has the
potential to make science more transparent and engender trust
in science within these communities. The opportunity may
also pique their interest in science and facilitate diversifying
the pipeline of future scientists. I see several opportunities
to continue funding this endeavor from agencies that are
interested in supporting these aims, such as the National
Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.
The examples of studies I have conducted all focus on social
media, but my research portfolio examines technologies more
broadly. A colleague and I recently published a study in the
Journal of Adolescent Health, in which we identified ethnoracial
patterns in the use of different telehealth modalities for mental
health care among a national sample of adolescents. Like other
studies of adolescents during the COVID-19 pandemic, we found
a high prevalence of symptoms consistent with depression
and anxiety within the sample. Unique to our study is an
understanding of the different ways adolescents are accessing
mental health care. We found that video chatting with a mental
health provider is very popular among adolescents during the
COVID-19 pandemic, but Black and Latino adolescents are more
likely than their White counterparts to report using text-based
chat to communicate with a mental health provider. Privacy
concerns appeared to be a key driver of the patterns we observed,
in that text may be preferable over a modality like video where
other household members could listen to what is
being said. In a working paper, we are using the
same dataset to show how virtual learning may
at times protect the mental health of Black
and Latino adolescents, in part because they
report sleeping better than when they
attend school in person. Both studies
are important for understanding how
best to use technologies to support
the mental health of adolescents
from communities of color.
I am thrilled to be joining
MSU and am grateful for
the resources many have
provided to support my
research, including the
opportunity to use
NEXO as a platform to
introduce myself to
the community. ⏹