Allowing students to explore independent research questions related to social media and adolescent health
By Aleenah Ansari
[Writer’s Note: Leading up to UW Undergraduate Research Symposium (URS), we featured each of our research interns and their projects on various topics related to social media and adolescent health via our Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter social media channels. This is the first of three features that outline broader takeaways from the URS and how it allowed research interns to 1) gain research exposure, 2) develop community, and 3) work toward their long-term career goals.]
When it comes to research, there is typically a spectrum of roles ranging from identifying a problem to designing a project with the right methodology that can effectively translate to positive impact the target population. Research interns on the Social Media and Adolescent Health Research Team (SMAHRT) experience every stage of this process from identifying a research question to sharing their results through presentations like the Undergraduate Research Symposium.
“It’s nice that this is a smaller team where you get to be involved in multiple projects and have assistance in starting your research training,” said Marina Jenkins, a current SMAHRT research intern.
With the recent growth of social media platforms and technology use, SMAHRT’s research is certainly timely and has a broad reach. Currently, there are no set recommendations about technology use, which opens up a variety of research questions about how to use it judiciously or, the way long-term use can impact people. SMAHRT is unique in that its members conduct research on a subject that has not been extensively researched in the past, which provides a variety of avenues for exploration about social media use, ethics, and engagement.
“It’s interesting because we don’t know how technology use affects us yet since social media is relatively new,” said Surupa Sarkar, a SMAHRT research intern. “It’s cool that there’s a research team in Seattle that focuses specifically on social media use with adolescents so over time, we can understand the health implications of [it].”
Additionally, the far-reaching impact of social media makes SMAHRT’s work incredibly relevant to current and future users, particularly adolescents.
“Now is the time to be studying [social media] because everything is changing with it,” said Nikki Singh, a SMAHRT research intern. “The generation before us, social media blew up when [they] were adults. Our generation, social media blew up when we were teenagers. The next generation, social media has been a part of their entire lives. It’s really interesting to see it through time. It’s such a big part of our lives, and there’s so much we don’t know about it.”
In their independent projects, SMAHRT research interns proactively identify their own research questions that relate to social media and adolescent health in an effort to understand current social media use with goals of identifying potential interventions or guidelines that could be implemented in the future.
Research interns contribute to research projects on teams while also exploring intersections of social media and adolescent health that are interesting to them. For example, Marina became interested in epidemiology toward the end of her college career, so she chose to focus her independent project on the conversation surrounding vaccines on parenting blogs. This allowed her to bridge this individual interest and develop robust research skills.
“I really wanted to experience working individually on research and in a team research setting, and also working on each step of the research process like doing literature reviews, developing projects, data collection, and writing the paper,” Marina said.
Marina hoped that this research could inform future public health efforts that focus on sharing accurate information about vaccines.
“There’s a need to develop better interventions to improve vaccination coverage, and to fight against anti-vaccination sentiments that have come up over the past several years,” Marina said. “A lot of it is related to publication of false information, and the thought that outbreaks, especially things publicized on social media, have influenced whether people or not are vaccinating.”
Some research interns like Kate Wilburn came to SMAHRT to conduct research that focuses on the intersection of technology and adolescent health. Kate initially discovered her interest in social media through a past internship at Youth Tech Health, which is a community organization that connects adolescents with accurate health information.
“Afterward, I wanted to learn more and dive deeper into how technology can be leveraged to improve youth health through innovative solutions, as well as learn about how technology affects youth health, particularly [their] mental health,” Kate said. “I have also always enjoyed conducting research and was excited to continue to improve those skills.”
With this identified interest, Kate chose to work on an independent research project that focused on mental health by exploring college students’ perception of the relationship between anxiety and social media. After presenting at the Undergraduate Research Symposium and the School of Public Health Undergraduate Symposium at the University of Washington, Kate hopes to work on a research paper to summarize her findings.
“My experiences at SMAHRT will be a big help when I eventually apply to graduate school, since research is what a lot of schools are looking for,” Kate said. “If I’m able to get my paper published, it would be particularly helpful! Other than graduate school, the skills I’ve gained give me a very solid research background, which is integral to many public health-related careers.”
Ultimately, SMAHRT research interns get to work on interesting questions and contribute to the growing body of research on social media and technology use.
“Social media is a relevant research topic, and … an area of society that is heavily under-researched,” said SMAHRT research intern Jaymin Sohal of his research on how college students perceive and identify with antibiotic-related tweets. “My research project is only one small piece to the puzzle. The more important thing is to make sure we are working on solving this puzzle.”
This is our first post in a series on the Undergraduate Research Symposium – stay tuned for parts 2 and 3!