Wellesley Alumna Lends Expertise on Teens’ Use of Social Media to CNN Special Report

November 18, 2015
A field of social media posts

Marion Underwood '86 is one of the nation’s foremost experts on how adolescents use social media. She recently joined CNN’s Anderson Cooper for the special report: "#Being13: Inside the Secret World of Teens." She also co-authored an article for CNN titled "Being 13: Perils of Lurking on Social Media."

"Many kids live as much online as they do face-to-face," said Underwood. For this report, CNN invited 200 13-year-olds from around the country to download a phone app (with their parents’ permission) that archived everything they posted on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook from September 2014 to April 2015. Underwood worked with the team to examine the content and interpret what the activity meant to the teens.

The study revealed that kids feel a lot of anxiety about how they rank compared with peers and if they fit in socially. "Young people want to be very public, they want to be high-profile. That feels consistent with their goals," Underwood said.

But being high-profile comes with a cost, as kids worry about how many likes their posts receive and whether their selfies are perfect. The heaviest users will post on various platforms 100 times a day, including during school hours. A third of teens check social media 25 times or more per day on weekends without posting anything themselves, simply to read the never-ending stream of their peers’ activities. That constant comparison can leave children feeling sad and vulnerable, or lead them to compare their inner experiences to everyone else’s positive depictions of their lives.

"What hurts them most online is something parents can't see—parties they haven’t been invited to, pictures they aren’t included in," said Underwood. "Those slights are heartbreaking to kids."

Parental involvement can mitigate the effects of negative interactions online, as the "#Being13" report points out. Underwood's advice to parents is to open a dialogue with children, perhaps by saying, "Feel free to talk about funny or uplifting things that happen online," she said.

Underwood, who has a teenage daughter, describes her involvement with "#Being13" as one of the highlights of her deeply satisfying career as a professor of behavioral and brain sciences, even though that wasn’t the career she originally envisioned for herself.

When she enrolled at Wellesley, Underwood planned to become a physician. She majored in chemistry until the beginning of her junior year, when she took a course with Jonathan Cheek, professor of psychology. She later worked with him in his lab. "He showed me what psychology research meant and how much fun it was," she said. "I am in this career because I was mentored by him."

Underwood worked with Cheek on research investigating identity orientations and social interest, the latter became the topic of her BA honors thesis research. Her interest in social media began after she joined the faculty of the University of Texas at Dallas in 1998. Her study of how 200 children used text messaging on BlackBerrys, a project that was funded by the National Institutes of Health, brought her to the attention of CNN.

"Marion's research on social media use among young adolescents in America is a groundbreaking project of enormous scope and significance," Cheek said.

Underwood said she understands why parents are so concerned about their kids having negative experiences online. Yet her extensive research reveals a hopeful finding: "That's not the majority of what is on social media," she said. "Kids can do things that lift each other up, and the majority of posts are in that category, most of it is positive, kids just being kids."