When a Stomachache is More Than a Stomachache
A few months into my adolescent medicine fellowship, I saw a patient with a fairly routine complaint: abdominal pain. But Tammy, the young woman in question, stuck with me, because of what she identified as the cause of her pain: an act of bullying, a few weeks before, on MySpace. Not so routine after all.
In 2006, when I first wondered aloud if other teens and young adults had experiences similar to Tammy’s, many people were unsure what social media really was, let alone if it was permanent or pervasive. Almost no one believed it could affect a person’s emotional or physical well-being.
Tammy’s visit illuminated the connection between social media and health. Her visit was one of the main reasons why I started the Social Media and Adolescent Health Research Team, or SMAHRT, in 2008 at Seattle Children’s Research Institute.
SMAHRT is dedicated to providing robust research on teens. We are taking a close look at social media patterns in teens like Tammy, who are sometimes a target of what we now readily identify as “cyberbullying,” as well as teens who have never struggled with social media, and all of those in between.
SMAHRT has grown into a large and diverse team. Our 20 team members range from full-time staff and adolescent medicine fellows to undergraduate researchers and communications interns. One “SMAHRTie” on our team, Nikita Midamba, applied her training in engineering and forensics to her research and led our pioneering work in creating a conceptual model of cyberbullying. This model helps us to ask and find answers to questions that will help teens like Tammy down the road.
Together our team has researched many topics, from alcohol displays on social media to problematic Internet use. We have published a book, Sex, Drugs and Facebook and provide resources for parents and teens.
With the support of Seattle Children’s Research Institute, we developed two flagship programs: our SMAHRT conference and annual Summer Scholars program. These programs will both be held this summer with the goal of bringing scientists and citizens together to generate the kind of innovative solutions we know can only come from collaboration.
The theme of the 2016 SMAHRT conference is “SocialMedia@Work” and will include sessions on problematic Internet use and how teens use social media. The conference is open to researchers, parents, teens, librarians, teachers, activists and others interested in promoting positive youth development. Our full conference schedule is available on our website, and highlights include:
- A panel on social media in education, featuring educators from the Seattle area
- A keynote presentation from the amazing Dr. Linda Charmaraman of the Wellesley Centers for Women
Register online at: http://smahrtresearch.com/conf2016
Summer Scholars program
From July 11 to 15, we will host 25 high school students from the South Seattle area in our second annual Summer Scholars program. In that week, students will complete their own original research project from start to finish, ultimately presenting the results of their work at a symposium attended by each student’s family, program alumni and Seattle Children’s staff.
The Name of the Game: Collaboration
These events have given back to us many times over. At our 2014 conference, we met members of the Northwest Portland Area Indian Health Board, with whom we collaborated to complete a research project to help Native American youth with concerning mental health displays online. And conversations at our 2015 Summer Scholars program resulted in our Youth Advisory Board, a group of teens who influence our work and provide us seemingly unending insights into teens today.
Things have changed a lot since I first saw Tammy in clinic. New social media platforms are arising every day. I’ve finished my training and have assembled a team I’m proud of. And yet, much has stayed the same. Teens need support and understanding, and my team’s commitment to their well-being hasn’t wavered.
Tips for parents of children who are being bullied, or who are doing the bullying:
- Take your child’s concerns about bullying seriously, whether as a child directly involved in the conflict, or as a bystander or witness. It is clear that these experiences are harmful and have both short-term and long-term consequences for the bully as well as the targeted child.
- Talk openly with your child about their bullying experiences, and look for additional support from your child’s doctor or nurse, or from a school administration, counselor, nurse or psychologist.