Social science research got a shoutout this week when U.S. first lady Melania Trump unveiled Be Best, her signature initiative on children’s health. Coming from an administration that has often denigrated the value of such research, that’s good news. And although the scientists welcome the high-level attention, they note that the study the White House cited doesn’t really address a major thrust of the initiative. They also are in the dark about how they appeared on the White House radar.
Be Best “will champion the many successful programs that teach children tools and skills for emotional, social, and physical well-being,” explains a press release that accompanied the 7 May rollout at the White House. One such skill, it notes, is learning “positive ways” to use social media to combat cyberbullying and foster a greater sense of community.
To emphasize the challenge that children and parents face in dealing with now ubiquitous social media technologies, the release cites a 2017 paper that found a teenager’s mental health deteriorates with prolonged use of cellphones, social media, and computer games. Although it measured the frequency of social media usage, the paper does not actually address how adolescents can use social media as a force for good, says its lead author, social psychologist Jean Twenge of San Diego State University (SDSU) in California.
The paper that Trump’s initiative cited was published online in November 2017 in Clinical Psychological Science. It draws on two ongoing surveys of adolescent behavior as well as national statistics on teenage suicide rates. The quartet of researchers from SDSU and Florida State University in Tallahassee noticed a significant increase in self-reported mental health problems starting in 2010 and went looking for an explanation.
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