How my research group is trying to make social media better for teens

by | Jun 20, 2023

Oliver and I are in Chicago this week so that I can present a research paper at the annual Interaction Design and Children (IDC) conference. IDC brings together researchers whose work focuses on understanding and improving how technologies are designed for children. This year’s topics include augmented and virtual reality, computational and data literacy, conversational agents, robotics, and child safety and wellbeing. The paper I’m presenting fits in this last category. 

Our research group developed Locus, a mobile application that supports teens’ positive social media interactions by prompting them to reflect on their social media intentions and experiences before they open an app and again at the end of the day.1Davis, K., Slovak, P., Landesman, R., Pitt, C., Ghajar, A., Schleider, J.L., Kawas, S., Perez Portillo, A..G., & Kuhn, N.S. (2023). Supporting teens’ intentional social media use through interaction design: An exploratory proof-of-concept study. Proceedings of the ACM SIGCHI Conference on Interaction Design and Children (IDC ’23). New York: ACM Press.

The Locus app

Locus is a mobile application available on the Google Play Store for Android devices with an Android version above 7.0 (we haven’t cracked iOS yet). It’s designed as a wrapper application that allows users to open social media apps directly through the Locus app. After opening Locus on their phone, users see all of their social media apps displayed together (see left screenshot, below). When they select an app such as TikTok or Snapchat, they’re shown a reflective prompt before being taken to the app (center screenshot, below). Locus also sends a general prompt in the form of a notification once per day at the end of the day (right screenshot, below).

Screenshots of the Locus app. Left: The application landing page where users access their social media apps; Center: An app-entry prompt that appears after clicking on a social media app; Right: A general end-of-day prompt received every day at 9pm.

Why Locus?

In February 2023, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released results from its latest Youth Risk Behavior Survey showing that rates of persistent sadness and suicidal ideation among U.S. teens are at their highest in a decade. Three months later, in May 2023, the U.S. surgeon general issued a public advisory calling attention to the growing concern about the effects of social media on youth mental health. There is mounting evidence that for many teens, some of their social media experiences are contributing to growing mental health challenges.

Despite recent efforts from several U.S. states to ban minors from using social media, there is little sign that teens will stop using social media anytime soon. And for many teens—including those who experience challenges in their offline lives—social media can be a source of personal validation, interpersonal connection, and fun. A more promising approach is to focus on making social media better for teens who struggle to find meaning, balance, and positive interactions in their social media experiences.

How does it work?

It’s common for teens to approach their social media use in an unintentional way, mindlessly scrolling through their feeds, allowing auto-play to show them video after video, and reacting to rather than interacting with the people and content they encounter online. Teens report experiencing these practices as unsatisfying but say they struggle to break their habits.2Pitt, C., Hock, A., Zelnick, L., & Davis, K. (2021). The Kids Are / Not / Sort of All Right*. Proceedings of the 2021 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 1–14. For a subset of teens,3Exact prevalence rates are difficult to determine due to factors such as researchers who use different definitions of problematic social media use and challenges with relying on teens to accurately report on their social media use. their practices rise to the level of problematic social media use, which is characterized by difficulty controlling behavior in relation to social media, with negative impacts on sleep, academic performance, relationships, and well-being.4Baloğlu, M., Şahin, R., & Arpaci, I. (2020). A review of recent research in problematic internet use: Gender and cultural differences. Current Opinion in Psychology, 36, 124–129.

What these teens struggle with is engaging in self-regulation behaviors such as reflection, planning, goal-setting, and self-monitoring. Because of their still-developing pre-frontal cortex, adolescents find it more challenging than adults to self-regulate their behavior when they are engaged in social interactions—such as those experienced on social media—that are immediately stimulating and rewarding (and designed intentionally so).

Locus targets the self-regulation skills that adolescents are most likely to disregard when faced with an immediately gratifying social media stimulus.

Promising results

Last summer, we conducted a two-week field deployment with 54 teens (average age of 16.2 years). Teens adopted Locus with minimal frustration and reported engaging in self-regulation behaviors more frequently as a result of using the app.

Results showed that, on average, participants reported statistically significant increased self-control, decreased absentmindedness, and increased autonomy in relation to their social media use from pre- to post-deployment.

In addition, 81% of the teens agreed or strongly agreed that Locus helped them to think about their goals for using social media, and 74% agreed or strongly agreed that Locus helped them feel more in control of their social media use.

Select Teen Quotes

“I felt like the time [using Locus] was a lot more meaningful. Like on Instagram, before I would just spend a lot of time scrolling through like random people’s posts I didn’t even know. Instead, now whenever I open the app, it would mostly be just [to interact with] the people I actually know, so it felt a lot more like meaningful.” (girl, age 16)

[Locus] helps me to…think about what I’m going to do on Instagram or whatever social media I’m using and kind of have that goal in mind.” (boy, age 17)

Takeaways and next steps 

Our results show that Locus does seem to help teens engage with social media in a more intentional way. Of course, this was just one, fairly small study, and more work is needed to examine how teens engage with Locus over a longer period of time. We also need to explore whether using Locus has any measurable influence on teens’ well-being over the long-term. Our research team is excited to explore these questions in our future work.