Social Media Impact with Dr. Sarah Coyne

Renown Academic Sits Down and Speaks About Why Her Social Media Study Took a Decade

Sandy Banda, Emily Hernandez, Logan Khan

Dr. Sarah Coyne is the curriculum vitae and Associate Director at Brigham Young University (BYU) as well as a Developmental Psychologist. We sat down with her and talked about her publication Does time spent using social media impact mental health?: An eight-year longitudinal study (2020) and the trials and tribulations that were entailed within the study. She received her B.S. in Psychology from Utah State University and her Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Central Lancashire in Preston, England. Her research interests include social media, aggression, and child development.  In addition, we discussed the inspiration behind her career and her advice on using social media as a research tool.

Read more: Social Media Impact with Dr. Sarah Coyne

Coyne caught the research bug when she was 20 years old when she needed to complete her honors thesis during her undergraduate degree. She asked a question no other researcher in the history of humanity had asked and then was able to answer it through like, careful research and like implementing the skills that she has learned including methodology and theory. How does viewing relational aggression in the media impact aggressive behavior among girls? It was very thrilling for her to answer. It forced on things  like gossiping, spreading rumors and the impact that it created. A lot of the research at the time was all about media violence like shooting, stabbing and I wanted to see how watching that type of behavior impacted that type of aggression in real life. So she did it for her undergrad and then again for her PhD thesis.

Dr. Coyne began her study by taking participants from the Flourishing Families Project which involved families with children between 10 and 13. There was a sample of at least 500 participants and this amount was needed in order to make an effect. Although a heavy amount of  the families were of European American ethnicity there were a few families that were African American, Hispanic, and Asian Americans. Education of the parents was either a bachelor;s or higher with the mother being a higher percentage. The income from families varied from mid class to low income. When they were first selected they were interviewed during the first eight months of 2007 for the first wave data sample. They were interviewed via phone call and before that they were given a letter in advance to just remind them that they were in the study and were going to receive the interview soon. Some were given home classes and those were videotaped for research purposes. As the wave phases changed within a period of time the structure of the study procedure stayed the same. The only difficulty presented was that the children were picked at a random age and there were some age gaps that were missing in the study.

Here are the questions we asked Dr. Coyne to get to know about her research career and learn more about her publication:

Can you walk us through the research process for your publication? 

This project was part of a wider project called Flourishing Families, and the intent of that project is to find out how families flourish as opposed to how they fail. At Wave Three,  I got hired at BYU. I asked the question: how is social media affecting these teenagers.? At the time social media was still fairly new and by wave five I was fully part of the project.  We followed these kids every single summer, our  students would go up to Seattle and we would follow them to their family homes and interview the teenagers and their parents and all sorts of things. 

What problems or limitations did you run into conducting your research for this study?

I think the hardest part of this study was retention. Trying to track down families and kids and things like that. Something that was difficult in terms of studying media is that media changed pretty dramatically from 2009 when we first started the study, until today .So we just didn’t know what kind of questions to ask.  By wave Six, we changed it to be online because the kids started to move. And then yeah, when they went to college, when they were 18, they went all over the place. I wish I could go back and ask all of the questions that now people are asking, so then I could have longitudinal data on it.

Why choose to make it an 8 to 11 year study? 

I’m a developmental psychologist, so I think about everything in terms of development. Some of the major limitations of the research, including media, are the short term nature. Its hard to answer questions about social media, mental health, because it might just be that people with poor mental health use social media in certain ways because of poor mental health. Right.  So by looking at it over the course of eight years, we were able to pretty much go through all of the adolescents and that early stage of adulthood. So we were able to see how things look from year to year and then really across the course of adolescence. That’s what we care about as human beings. We just want our teenagers to be okay when they leave the house, so we want to find out what is impacting them in certain ways.

Social media plays a prevalent role in today’s society, what are your thoughts on using social media as a research tool?

I think that it’s a great tool to be utilized in a variety of different ways. It’s something that we’re using right now. We’re doing an EMA study on body image and social media among adolescents. So it’s like we’re trying to capture them in the  moment and seeing how they feel. But then part of it is we’re going to try to scrape their data on their social media feeds to find out what kind of content and what kind of experiences they’re having. So kind of using that as a tool in that way. We’re doing other studies where we’re using passive sensing. Right. So we’re able to collect social media, like, exactly what they’re doing and how they’re utilizing it. But possibilities are so much bigger than that. And I know that other people are using it in a lot of fun ways. 

When conducting a research study, do you prefer using a quantitative or qualitative method of analysis and why?

Historically I’m a quantitative researcher. I think it’s easier to do longitudinal stuff with quantitative data. Recently though I have been dipping my toe into more qualitative studies, especially if it’s like a newer area because you kind of gotta hear the voice and then you can figure out, is this even worth studying or know it comes up with new questions. I also really like mixed methods when I can do it but most of my research has been quantitative though, for sure.

What would your advice be for student researchers or beginners who are conducting their first research study?

Just be as creative as you can and think up new methods or tweaking methods that already exist or, um, looking at something different, in a unique way. That’s like the spirit of research follow your passion, I know that that’s generic advice, but a lot of people get a research job working for a company, you know, inputting data or whatever, which is fine and we need those people, but follow your passions and I think that you’ll have fulfill career. 

How do you see the long term ramifications of mental health now that social media is constantly growing? 

I feel like social media can certainly impact mental health  for negative and also for positive. It depends on all sorts of things like the individual, the content, the context, you know, the ways we’re using it and so on. What I’m hoping is that social media’s here to stay and that educators and government and parents will get behind, media literacy, this point of view to try to educate and empower youth to use social media in ways that help them thrive. While at the same time I hope that social media companies will partner with researchers, including some child development specialists, um, to think about how their product, um, what the impact their product might be having on youth and if there are things that we can change to have a better impact. 

In terms of social media and mental health, are there any sort of disclaimers you have for newer users given your study and seeing what the trends were over those years just to avoid having such a negative and I guess toxic impact?

Yeah,  I would say avoid really heavy use early on in development. So some of our research suggests that that can be pretty negative, especially for girls. I would say keep an open dialogue with your parents or somebody that you trust so that you can go to them, if you see something that’s heavy or if you see somebody mistreated, um, and they can help you learn and grow. Try to be mindful when you’re using and really aware of how it’s impacting you so you can set boundaries for yourself. I think our problem is when it’s kind of a free for all and we’re not thinking and we’re just scrolling and it’s high levels. 

How do you think your study would’ve been different if it would’ve been now in modern times, rather than during a time like quarantine. 

I would say it is mixed among researchers right now. Most of us kind of think that social media has a small to negligible effect on mental health in terms of time spent on it because there’s so much content like that. So I think that if we did it today, we’d find something probably similar. We definitely would’ve asked other questions.  So like if you’re consistently using social media in a negative way, it’s gonna have a long term negative effect.If you’re consistently looking at inspiring, wonderful content where everyone’s prosocial we’re gonna have a really positive effect.  I think that a lot of people relied on social media during the pandemic in ways that they hadn’t before in order to connect. I don’t know if that means that we kind of like to rely on it too much now or in different ways. But I am hoping that we’ll continue to look at this longitudinally to see how this generation is different from the last, they are different in a lot of ways.

Since Dr. Coyne is based in Utah, we had to use Zoom to have the best interpersonal experience, and we have the video to showcase her contributions towards the communications industry.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s