Winston Center tackles crisis of teens and screens

With groundbreaking research linking social media habits to brain changes, the center also provides career training, public awareness.

Social media apps on an iphone screen.

“We knew that we had done something amazing scientifically.”

That’s what Eva Telzer, co-director of Carolina’s Winston National Center on Technology Use, Brain and Psychological Development, said about the moment in late 2022 when the center’s research team analyzed results from the first-ever study linking teens’ habitual checking of social media to changes in their brains’ development.

Doctoral students Kara Fox and Maria Maza, the study’s primary authors, are part of the center’s team that leads a fairly new research field — the role of technology and social media on adolescent brain development. They’re already helping people — parents and teens, especially — who are concerned about the effects of screen time.

The Journal of American Medical Association Pediatrics published the findings in January 2023. By then, a $10 million gift in March 2022 from the Winston Family Foundation had expanded the team’s work by creating the center. Mitch Prinstein, the John Van Seters Distinguished Professor in the College of Arts and Sciences’ psychology and neuroscience department and chief science officer at the American Psychological Association, and Telzer, associate professor of psychology and neuroscience, have served as co-directors since its inception.

The center not only has multiple potentially life-changing research studies underway, but it also trains students for scientific careers. Master’s and doctoral students, post-doctoral and post-baccalaureate fellows and undergraduates all work with faculty who teach and conduct research. The multi-tiered team prioritizes education, outreach, research, public health and engaging teens.

Helpful research in a crisis

Prinstein’s and Telzer’s work to build the blockbuster research program goes back to 2018.  It coincided with the end of a decade of dramatic changes in how adolescents learn — about social interaction, emotions, distinguishing between right and wrong.

“We wanted to get folks’ attention on a topic that we thought was important and a nascent research area that we believed had big implications and potential for understanding adolescent development,” said Prinstein. “We did not expect that the world would soon start to become interested in this topic.”

The world became interested largely because of the ubiquity of digital technology.

“We’ve seen a remarkable increase in the amount of time that kids spend using technology and social media platforms,” he said. “That use has been associated with a concomitant decrease in other activities like sleeping and reading.”

The study in JAMA Pediatrics complemented earlier research by Prinstein and Telzer, in which they collected objective measures of teens’ social media and tech use. They asked hundreds of teens to take a screenshot of their phone’s built-in record of use data each day. For 14 consecutive days, the teens sent screenshots to Winston Center researchers, showing daily hours of use, total notifications and how many times they handled their phones.

The jaw-dropping results: Teens, on average each day, pick up their phones 100 times and spend 500 minutes or more than eight hours on their phones.

Some might say the numbers indicate a crisis, Prinstein said. The teens reported that after using social media they felt increased loneliness and less connected to their peers and craved more social interaction. “The very behavior that they go online for — to seek social connection and relationships with friends — actually causes them to feel more lonely and less connected,” he said.

Prinstein said that the team unpacks everyone’s main question — “How does social media affect kids’ development?” — to study the effects on brain functions and the brain’s size or structural development. They ask questions like:

  • What are the positive effects?
  • How do technology use and social media affect mental health?
  • How is it changing their brains?
  • What are teens not doing when using technology?

The center has six studies well underway. Some studies follow device use and academic, psychological and social development of children from early grade school through high school graduation. Others look specifically at brain development. One focuses on the relationship of technology use, mood and risk among teens in the rural Southeast. A smartphone well-being study is investigating college students’ relationships with their smartphones and brain function.

Education and opportunities for undergraduates

One of the center’s first goals was to create a course in which undergraduates explore the science of social media, technology and brain development. The course, Psychology 180, is open to all undergraduates and has been a hit. The course has been taught several times with over 800 students enrolling. “Within five minutes of registration opening, the class is full and we’re getting emails from students begging to take the course,” Telzer said.

One course assignment is to spend 24 hours without using a phone for anything other than coursework — no texts, no social media. Telzer said that some students could not do it because reaching for their phones was an automatic response, while others were able to connect with peers, sleep better and be in the moment more.

The Winston Center exemplifies the initiative “Enable Career Development” from Carolina’s strategic plan Carolina Next by training undergraduate students on human subject research, then making them research assistants. They collect data, retrieve MRI scans, call families to recruit subjects and create infographics that depict findings.

Sharing the research

The center has created videos, a middle-school curriculum and other resources on the website Teensandtech.org for people to learn about how digital media can affect children and adolescents.

A Handbook of Adolescent Digital Media Use and Mental Health is free to download for people interested in digital media research. It covers subjects such as the role of digital media in adolescent body image and eating disorders, addiction, sleep and other health risks. Policymakers at the federal and state level have used the handbook.

Easily understood videos based on the handbook and “Teens Teaching Teens” videos created by Psychology 180 students cover topics such as screentime and sleep, dark friendship behaviors to avoid , and seeking popularity and status online. “In these videos, our students are talking about what they’re learning in class and why middle schoolers or high schoolers should heed the lessons coming from science,” Prinstein said. There are also 65 videos from Psychology 180 covering 15 topics.

For educators, the center offers a free six-module curriculum about adolescent brain development. It meets National Health Education Standards for middle schoolers.

To further the center’s reach, Prinstein and Telzer hope to offer Psychology 180 through Carolina’s Digital and Lifelong Learning.

“We’re just getting started,” Telzer said. “We plan to do a lot more. We hope to expand our curriculum to younger ages and continue our dissemination, getting the science out there and helping people to understand why what we study is so important.”