Emily Jensen-Schvaneveldt: Research on Healthy Relationships with Digital Media
My disdain for social media began long before the atrocities we all witnessed at the nation’s capitol on January 6th. It even began before Facebook had a viable ad platform, later to be fueled by misinformation and enragement. Years back, my early disheartening observations were mostly around this new phenomenon of virtual relationships replacing in-person ones. Users began to frantically collect friends and followers like a hunter might mount elk heads on their study walls. And even though these users might have been privy to what their “friends” had eaten for lunch or who had most recently vacationed in Mexico, the truth was that the increased screen time to manage these connections, likes, and comments was also increasing loneliness. In spite of having a very impressive digital social graph, forty-five percent of adults find it very difficult to make new friends. In fact, the average American hasn’t made a new friend in five years. More than three in five US adults report to be lonely, and I could easily continue to bore you with endless statistics on this subject. Instead, I’ll cut to the chase and tell you what these growth trends all have in common: they all follow an eery decade-long parallel trajectory to the adoption of social media platforms.
This is really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to some of the damages levied on the commonwealth by social platforms. Another that is closer to home for me is this link between depression, negative body image, and increased risk of suicide in teen girls. On the post I wrote during my mini-existential crisis with continuing to work in the tech industry, I searched for a study to cite which confirmed the the dozens of headlines I had shuddered at over the last few years. One of the first results that popped up was from Dr. Sarah Coin, an associate director of the school of family life at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. In one of her studies, she “found that girls who started using social media at two to three hours a day or more at age 13, and then increased [that use] over time, had the highest levels of suicide risk in emerging adulthood.” Suicide rates in teen girls recently hit a forty-year high.
I found this much more alarming than the loneliness epidemic, and decided to reach out to her. I should have looked a bit deeper into her research first, because she’s been busy. Very busy. Her professional page at the university was bottomless scroll of studies with names such as “We’re not gonna be friends anymore”: Associations between viewing relational aggression on television aggression and relational aggression in text messaging during adolescence, and “Video game addiction in emerging adulthood: Cross-sectional evidence of pathology in video game addicts as compared to matched healthy controls.” She was also heavily backlogged with media requests, but was kind enough to introduce me to her colleague and mentee, Emily Jensen-Schvaneveldt.
The chat I had with Emily surprised me. Looking at all of these research topics, my brain immediately went to the “these media channels are destroying our young population, and we need to do something about it!” Instead, Emily is all about creating healthy relationships with these products and services. After all, isn’t that really the only sensible approach? There are no special interest groups, academics, nor policy makers that are about to stand in front of this runaway freight train of innovation. And even if they attempted such, tech would just build tracks around them. The challenge isn’t so much around the innovation itself, but the speed at which it is taking place, and how it far surpasses our ability to make behavioral adjustments. Emily and I discuss the role of parents in this quickly evolving space, and desperate need to start addressing the dangers of being swallowed by digital in our public schools. Her research findings go beyond social media and also touch on video games, and even pornography. She is part of a group that gives me hope around our species using these tools for good, as opposed to the tools using us.