Effects of social media on child brain development

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A new research center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill will examine the long-term effects of technology and social media use on teen social and emotional development, thanks to a $10 million gift from the Winston Family Foundation. The Winston National Center on Technology Use, Brain and Psychological Development will create more tools for parents, caregivers and teens to make better informed choices about how they interact with technology and social media.

James Winston, Jr., Ph.D. and a director of the Winston Family Foundation, has decades of experience in the field of addiction. He has seen powerful and alarming correlates between increased device use and addiction and was driven to jumpstart the original educational initiative, the Winston Family Initiative in Technology and Adolescent Brain Development – or WiFi – in partnership with UNC-Chapel Hill in 2018. As the original seed grew and the national narrative coalesced around increasing concern for adolescent mental health, it became clear that more needed to be done not only to educate parents but to establish the neurobiological science behind the trends. The Winston National Center is the next step in that effort.

Mitch Prinstein, Ph.D., ABPP, chief science officer at the American Psychological Association and John Van Seters Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at UNC-Chapel Hill, and Eva Telzer, Ph.D., a UNC-Chapel Hill associate professor of psychology and neuroscience, will serve as co-directors of the new center, evolving from their current co-directorship 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 further explore the links between teens’ online behavior and a range of mental health symptoms.

Prinstein, Telzer and their team will pursue a five-pronged mission focused on education, outreach, research, public health and adolescent involvement.

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

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

In addition to the distinguished professorship, the Winston Family Foundation’s 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.

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