With more than 2 billion users globally, the reach and influence of Facebook now rivals that of Christianity and exceeds that of Islam.
It’s a topic that interests Annie Margaret, an instructor at the ATLAS Institute who investigates how technological innovation impacts society, cognition and human well-being.
“Attention to social media means money, and the content that gets the most attention tends to invoke rage, comparison, feelings of inadequacy and loneliness,” says Margaret, who designed and teaches two classes at ATLAS–Neurohacking, and Empathy and Technology. “This impacts us all.”
Margaret investigates the efficacy of specific psychotechnologies and contemplative practices as tools to counteract the negative impact of social media on our mental health and well-being. She is especially interested in social media’s effect on young women. Research suggests that this demographic has various negative mental health outcomes related to life satisfaction, happiness and anxiety. In a 2019 JAMA article, researchers stated that the surge in social media use may be at least in part to blame for the rise in suicide rates in adolescent females, which rose 151 percent from 2009 to 2019, in stark contrast to fairly consistent rates previously (1999-2009).
To address some of the underlying issues behind these disturbing trends, Margaret created a Digital Wellness Summer Program for middle-school girls that provide strategies adolescents can use to minimize the negative psychological impacts of social media. She and her team are gathering data on the impact of the curricula, which they will use to make it more effective.
The program is funded by a Community Impact Grant through CU Boulder’s Office for Outreach & Engagement.
“This program provides young people with the skills to resist the emotional hijacking perpetrated through smartphones and social media," Margaret says. "Building resilience will give them the agency to choose where they give their attentional and emotional resources."
Grant funds pay community partners and graduate and undergraduate students involved in the program, as well as purchasing materials. Student researchers will be recruited through MS CTD-Social Impact track and from Margaret’s classes.
During the summer, females aged 10 to 14 were identified to join a curriculum-development focus group. The focus group is conducted in partnership with students from Title I middle schools in the Boulder Valley School District and middle-school students from Dawson Summer Initiative, a tuition-free program that provides academic opportunities for high-achieving public middle-school students from Boulder County and surrounding areas.
Focus group participants meet via Zoom to provide a team of curriculum developers–teachers, community partners and CU Boulder students–with insights into the most effective pedagogies and practices for improving students’ relationships with smartphones and social media. Throughout the focus group period, the group has experimented with a variety of activities and lesson plans in order to assess various psychological outcomes related to smartphone addiction and dependence, self-esteem, attentional control, self-compassion and emotional regulation.
Psychological surveys administered at the beginning of the focus group period are compared against the same surveys taken after each intervention module. All assessment materials–surveys and free response questions–are analyzed by undergraduate and graduate students to determine the most effective aspects of the interventions, and lessons and practices are tested during focus group meetings. Assessment of the outcomes of the focus group during the 2021-2022 school year will be used to inform the curriculum design for the launch of the full Digital Wellness Program during the summer of 2022.
“As long as social media companies profit from addiction, preying on our basic human need for social belonging, our attention will continue to be exploited without our consent, and our emotions manipulated without our awareness,” Margaret says.
“Assessment is critical to the success of this project,” she continues. “We are creating an evidence-based curriculum that provides the resources young people need to thrive in the rapidly growing attention economy.”