Center to Study Social Media Effects on Teen Mental Health

A $10 million gift from the Winston Family Foundation will fund a research center at UNC to examine the long-term effects of technology and social media use on teen social and emotional development.

The Winston National Center on Technology Use, Brain and Psychological Development will create tools for parents, caregivers and teens to make better-informed choices about how they interact with technology and social media.

James Winston Jr. ’81 (’92 PhD), a director of the Winston Family Foundation, has decades of experience in the field of addiction, and has observed correlates between increased device use and addiction. In 2018, Winston partnered with Carolina to launch an educational initiative on technology use, the Winston Family Initiative in Technology and Adolescent Brain Development – or WiFi. As the national narrative coalesced around increasing concern for adolescent mental health, it became clear to Winston that more needed to be done to educate parents and to establish the neurobiological science behind the trends. The Winston National Center is the next step in that effort.

Mitch Prinstein, chief science officer at the American Psychological Association and the John Van Seters distinguished professor of psychology and neuroscience at UNC; and Eva Telzer, a UNC associate professor of psychology and neuroscience, will serve as co-directors of the new center. Prinstein and Telzer are co-directors of WiFi.

Their preliminary research indicates teenagers spend more than eight hours daily on cell phones, with a significant portion of time on social media. The Winston National Center will explore the links between teens’ online behavior and a range of mental health symptoms.

“It is clear we need to know more about the influence of social media experiences and device use on mental health,” said Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz. “Carolina-based researchers are leading the way in this emerging field, and this gift from Dr. Winston and the Winston Family Foundation will fuel more of the scientific discovery we need. We can grow our knowledge in a way that better equips our children and our society to navigate an evolving, but oftentimes dangerous, landscape of tech and social media.”

Prinstein, Telzer and their team will focus on education, outreach, research, public health and adolescent involvement.

“The teenage years mark rapid brain development that makes teens highly sensitive to their environment. Technology-mediated contexts have the potential to ‘rewire’ the developing brain,” Telzer said. “Scientific research, like ours, will hopefully create the impetus for more monitoring, oversight and regulation of social media platforms.”

As of June 2020, 63 percent of parents in the United States reported their teenagers spent more time using social media than they did in pre-pandemic times, according to research from Statista.

“The goal of the center is to help families and educators understand how the increased use of technology shapes children,” Winston said. “We have discovered that high levels of device use and social media consumption alters neurobiological development in ways that can be detrimental to well-being. The significant rise in reports of mental health issues, shorter attention spans, lack of empathy and critical thinking, all indicate that parents, educators and caregivers urgently need more information about how to support children and teens as they engage with highly-stimulating devices and social platforms.”

The foundation gift also establishes the first endowed professorship in the department of psychology and neuroscience, the Winston Family Distinguished Professorship.

The gift will provide seed funding to support two additional assistant professors at Carolina, an expanded research team, two data analysts and additional staff members dedicated to strategic partnerships and educational outreach to parents and teachers.

“The Winston National Center represents a new path forward and makes Carolina the place that the world turns to in addressing this urgent challenge,” said Terry Rhodes, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, home to the department of psychology and neuroscience.



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