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ASU professor receives innovation award to accelerate research on healthy online relationships

Portrait of ASU Assistant Professor Joris Van Ouytsel.

Assistant Professor Joris Van Ouytsel received the 2023 Hugh Downs School Faculty Innovation Award.

September 01, 2023

At what age should adolescents be on social media platforms?

Parents have grappled with this question for years, worrying about the impact these platforms may be having on their children’s emotional well-being. 

The concern is genuine, according to U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy, who recently warned that social media presents a “profound risk” for the mental health of adolescents and teens. 

Murthy says 13 is too young for children to be on social media platforms, and that this health risk needs to be addressed “immediately.”

Arizona State University Assistant Professor Joris Van Ouytsel, who studies digital interpersonal communication at the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication, says banning children 13 and under from social media might not be realistic for some parents and is also difficult to enforce.

“Social media has its risks to adolescents, to be sure, but it also provides them with opportunities to develop their sense of self,” he says.

Van Ouytsel adds that “surprisingly little research has been dedicated to developing evidence-based educational initiatives that can teach them to cope with the challenges that digital media create.”

To that end, he has focused his research on ways we can foster positive digital interactions and opportunities while keeping individuals safe from online harm, abuse and violence, especially vulnerable populations.

As the recipient of the 2023 Hugh Downs School Faculty Innovation Award, he is currently investigating innovative ways to educate young people on healthy online relationships.

He will receive $4,500 a year for two years. He plans to conduct a needs assessment among teenagers, educators and experts in adolescent development and media literacy — including psychologists, pediatricians, sociologists and teachers  to create an educational resource for safer online communication.   

The award was established in 2020 in memory of Hugh Downs by his son, Hugh “H.R.” Downs; his daughter, Deirdre Downs; and his grandson, Cameron Black. Hugh Downs, for whom the ASU School of Human Communication was named, was best known as an Emmy Award-winning American broadcaster, author, host and founding voice in modern American media. He died on July 1, 2020, at the age of 99.

“Professor Van Ouytsel is well known for his pioneering research on the influence of digital media on relationship experiences,” said Sarah Tracy, professor and director of the Hugh Downs School.  

“In addition to publishing in numerous academic journals, he is associate editor of the highly regarded journal Personal Relationships. His work has also been featured in popular press outlets such as Newsweek, The Economist and The Atlantic. His research on relational communication and technology is pivotal for understanding how technology changes friendships and romantic relationships."

One area in which Van Ouytsel continues to work is digital forms of control within romantic relationships. “Technological gadgets, such as smartphones, make it increasingly easier to abuse, control, stalk and harass your loved ones,” he said. “Young teens don’t always understand the severity of these behaviors. They sometimes think that their extremely controlling behavior is OK.”

In a study that was published last year, Van Ouytsel also examined the pressures that teenagers experience within their friendships.

Many teenagers experience digital stress because they are permanently online, which often is accompanied by the perceived pressure to immediately respond to messages.

Van Ouytsel says, “When teenagers don’t respond to messages promptly, they can get in trouble with their friends. They try to avoid conflict by reacting quickly, especially within their close friendships. Many of our study participants called this ‘digital stress.’ Other causes of digital pressure are the ‘blue ticks’ and the ‘seen’ function on social media, which indicate whether a message has been read. Some participants would go as far as what they called ‘stalking’ their friends by repeatedly sending question marks or new messages in the hope of getting a response.”

Van Ouytsel recommends parents have an ongoing conversation with their children, rather than trying to restrict their media use.  

“You can use a news report about technology as a way to start a conversation with your teenager,” he said. “After that, you can ask casually whether it has happened to their friends, for example. These discussions can focus on creating healthy expectations around media use within relationships and teaching young people practical skills on how to keep themselves safe online."

“And emphasize that your child can always come to you when something happens,” he adds. “Don't scare them by threatening that you will take their smartphones away or that you’ll limit their internet use, because then they will remain silent and (that) will make them particularly vulnerable to potential extortion. And by using your own life experience, you can already teach them valuable lessons.”

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