SMAHRTAs new technologies have emerged, Seattle Children’s Research Institute has kept pace, studying various social media channels and considering how these impact adolescent health.

To share their exciting work with the community, the research institute’s Social Media & Adolescent Health Research Team (SMAHRT) is hosting its first annual conference July 31 through Aug. 2. The conference, titled “Using Social Media To Improve Health, Catalyze Research and Empower Communities,” will address how social media can lead to both problematic behaviors – like overuse of the internet – or positive actions, like increased fitness.

“We know social media has some risk but we also know there are some benefits to using these tools,” said Dr. Megan Moreno, principal investigator of SMAHRT within the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s. “We want to figure out how to make online experiences more positive.”

The conference will include panel discussions as well as an “Appy Hour” in which attendees will have a chance to use Fitbit activity trackers, experience iPad health screenings and try an app used to help patients decide on birth control methods. It is intended for teachers, educators, families, health care providers, researchers, child health advocates, public health practitioners, and members of the legal, business, technology, and journalism communities.

Below are some of the topics attendees can expect to hear about at the conference:

Cyber bullying

Unfortunately, adolescents sometimes use online tools in cruel and harmful ways known as cyber bullying. These behaviors can have the same impact as face-to-face bullying, including depression, increased risk of substance use and poor school outcomes. Extreme cases of cyber bullying have even led to suicide.

To help prevent these dangerous online behaviors, Moreno and her team are working on a new study funded by the U.S. Department of Justice to create a uniform definition of cyber bullying.

“Once we define it we can build a measurement tool for future studies to see how many kids are affected and develop strategies to help them,” Moreno said.

How photos can influence behavior

Could a picture affect your behavior? Dr. Joyce Yi-Frazier wants to find out. She is leading a study to discover if Instagram can help adolescents with type-1 diabetes live healthier lives.

Teens with diabetes must cope with common adolescent issues while also controlling their blood sugar levels. Some handle these challenges better than others.

Often, Yi-Frazier said teens with diabetes feel their peers don’t understand the challenges this disease presents, but those who have social support tend to have better outcomes.

“I want to better understand the resilience that allows some teens to succeed,” Yi-Frazier said. “Maybe seeing what others find positive about diabetes through Instagram will impact their outlook. That change in attitude could inspire positive actions.”

Does technology affect sleep?

Dr. Michelle Garrison will be speaking at the SMAHRT conference about her research demonstrating how media use is associated with less sleep and lower sleep quality.

“Media use can lead to adolescents staying up later for many reasons – whether they want to watch their favorite TV show or because they are afraid of what their peers might post about them while they’re offline,” Garrison said.

Studies have shown that even just the light emitted from a cell phone can alter a person’s circadian rhythm.

“We can’t just tell teens not to use their phone at night – that won’t work,” Garrison said. “We need to consider why they’re using it at night and assess the perceived benefits.”

Garrison’s research has also shown that parents can significantly influence their children’s media use as role models.

“When kids see mom and dad using their iPads in bed at night they imitate that behavior,” she said.

Social media posts and adolescent health

Understanding the teenage mind is difficult for most parents. It’s reasonable to ask, what can we learn about teens from their social media posts?

Megan Pumper, a member of SMAHRT, is working on a study that analyzes mentions of alcohol on Facebook in relation to binge drinking. Likewise, she is also studying evidence of depression symptoms in adolescents’ social media posts.

“We want to see how depression and suicide are discussed on sites like Facebook and Twitter and if those mentions correlate with offline symptoms,” Pumper said. “Our long term goal is to determine whether social media can be used to identify depression and other mental health issues.”

The SMAHRT Conference is open to the public. Anyone interested in attending can register online.

Seattle Children’s will host a twitter chat July 15, 11 a.m. to noon to discuss eating disorders, alcohol use and cyber bullying with Dr. Megan Moreno. Follow @SeattleChildren to join in the conversation.

Media who would like to arrange an interview with Dr. Megan Moreno should contact Seattle Children’s PR team at 206-987-4500 or press@seattlechildrens.org.

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