Media Use and Mental Health

Research from the MYME study revealed that young adolescents who spent more time using their cell phones and watching TV had increases in their symptoms of depression over the course of the year-long study. Other survey research supports the finding that certain types of media use, and especially cell phone use, is related to symptoms of depression. However, interviews with young adults reveal that they see the connection provided by communication technology as helping with their negative feelings. Work has not investigated how use of modern types of online communication and other current forms of media use are used by young people with depression and if this use is helpful or detrimental to their symptoms.


In response to this gap in the research, CMCH is conducting a clinic-based research study examining how adolescents and young adults with at least low levels of depression use both passive and interactive media to cope with their symptoms. Participants complete a questionnaire about their health and mental health status and then, for 1 week, complete questionnaires on their phone throughout their day reporting their affect and specifics about their media use. Once data collection is, analyses will examine patterns of media use and affect to determine the types of media that are used when a participant is experiencing negative affect and the impact that use has on affect at later times. This relatively small study will serve as preliminary data for proposals for larger, related projects.

The impact of play on development in the digital age

Changes to educational policies that reduce free play time in school and social and structural changes that are seen as reducing access to unrestricted outdoor play during free time have led to concerns about a “play deficit.” Furthermore, the constant increase in access to and use of electronic screen media among children is positioned to displace free play outside of structured educational environments. Considering that ample evidence exists linking free play to key developmental abilities, these changes might have large scale impacts on children. Most of the work in this area has been done as interventional studies or observational studies in educational settings leaving a gap in our understanding of how children play in informal settings where digital media tend to serve as a viable alternative to play.

In order to better understand how children play in their daily lives and how specific types of play (including digital play) are linked to developmental outcomes, CMCH is conducting research in the US and Mexico. Children between the ages of 2.5 and 7 complete a series of lab-based assessments of their cognitive abilities and executive functioning. For the 2 weeks following this session, the children’s parents answer questions throughout the day about what their child is doing. Details about their play and media use are collected as is a short video documenting the social and environmental context of play. Three waves of the study will be conducted with 6-months between them resulting in data collected over the course of one year. Analyses will look at patterns in play and their links to changes in cognitive abilities and social behaviors.

Manchester Media Study

The Manchester Media Study (conducted in Manchester, NH, starting in 2009) uses Measurement of Youth Media Exposure (MYME) methodology developed at CMCH to study youth media exposure and physical, emotional, cognitive, and social outcomes. The first results, published in Pediatrics (May 2013), suggest that the amount of attention youth pay to TV is associated with risk of obesity, but that the amount of time spent watching is not. Time spent using computers, video games, and cell phones had no effect. These results may reflect the influence of food commercials, or the fact that teens are less attentive to how much they’re eating while they’re distracted by TV.

The MYME methodology consists of multiple, complementary techniques for assessing young people’s media use and exposure. Two projects set out to assess the reliability, validity, and convergence of these findings. In one study reported at the Society for Research on Child Development meeting, we examined the agreement between Time Use Diary estimates of media use and survey-based recall estimates. The results showed that the techniques resulted in similar use estimates for most types of media use (TV, video games, computers) with cell phones being an exception: survey questions resulted in much higher estimates than Time Use Diaries. Findings indicate that for researchers primarily interested in duration of media use, recall questions and Time Use Diaries will result in similar estimates.

MYME uses three field measures of media exposure: 1) Time Use Diaries, 2) Survey questions Ecological Momentary Assessment (qEMA), and 3) Video survey Ecological Momentary Assessment (vEMA). In qEMA, participants respond to random signals throughout the day by completing a number of questions about what they are doing (including using media), who they are with, and how they feel. Participants follow the survey by completing a video scan of their environment using a provided video camera (vEMA). In analyses testing the agreement of these techniques, we found that the methods tended to agree about the presence or absence of different types of media use at the measurement moment. So, for example, when TV viewing was reported at a certain time on the TUD, the qEMA and vEMA tended to indicate that the TV was on. This study indicates that any of these measures will provide similar media use information, so researchers should decide which to use based on their research question. For example, if they want to know the association between affect and media use, they should use qEMA since it is capable of assessing affect in the moment and, as shown by our study, provides a reliable assessment of media use.

The MYME methodology results in a database that contains the information necessary to answer a multitude of research questions about how young people use electronic media and the influences of that use on their health. Completed studies have shown 1) that participants’ involvement with media defined primarily by their tendency to multitask predicts the likelihood that they take their first alcoholic beverage in the next year, 2) that participants’ attention to TV can be predicted by characteristics of the viewing moment including the young person’s emotions and the genre of the show being watched, and 3) that participants generally feel less positive and more negative when they use media than when they do not.


Advergaming Study

This study focuses on the effectiveness of branding in advergames in influencing children’s food choices. It investigates whether branded online games are effective in encouraging children to select the advertised product. This study will expand the current base of knowledge on advergames by addressing whether branded entertainment increases the likelihood that children will choose these unhealthy options, whether increased brand presence results in stronger food preferences, and whether children aged 6-10 are aware of the manipulation present in such forms of branded entertainment. Using an experimental design, children played 1 of 3 advergames in which images of the product were either 1) not included in the game (control), 2) included as background images only, or 3) integrated into the game play. Analyses will examine whether these groups differ on the food choices they make and whether understanding the intent of advergames alters any observed effects.

Media Literacy Program Evaluations

Working with program developers in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, CMCH researchers examined the impact of a school-based program to reduce middle-school children’s screen time. Comparing the results of survey-measured media use and outcome measures, the team found that when participants in the program cut down screen time and increased sleep, they completed homework more efficiently, spending less time and finishing more assignments. CMCH staff presented the results at the meeting of the International Communication Association, suggesting we need to educate school-aged children to use screen time mindfully.

In collaboration with Media Power Youth, a non-profit that designs and implements media education programs, CMCH assessed the effectiveness of a 5th grade curriculum designed to teach participants the skills necessary to understand advertising and other types of media presentations. Students who participated in the program learned to identify the strategies of advertising and demonstrated their new skills in a novel task in which they viewed a commercial and named the persuasive techniques it employed. The results of this work were published in the Journal of Children and Media.


Cyberhero Mobile Safety

In partnership with the Internet Keep Safe Coalition and Woogi World, CMCH built the educational objectives for and guided the creation of a series of computer games that aimed to teach children smart, safe mobile phone use. Working from a perspective based on the Capacity theory, CMCH informed the educational approach of these games and encouraged designers to overlap the narrative of the game with the games message as much as possible. One game that successfully followed this approach was called Woogi Who and taught players the importance of obtaining permission before posting pictures of their friends. Gameplay included asking a friend in the game for information about what picture he wanted you to post. CMCH staff conducted a formative evaluation of the program, presented results at the Society for Research in Child Development and published their findings in Games for Health.