Feature Stories Campus Events All Stories

W&L Psychology Project Examines Cell-Phone Usage and Adolescent Health

How are changing patterns of communication associated with the health and well-being of teenagers?

Washington and Lee psychology professor Karla Murdock and Robert E. Lee scholars Sarah Gorman, a senior from Moores Hill, Ind., and Melissa Derby, a junior from Estelline, S.Dak., are tackling that question in a pilot study this summer.

Texting has become the most popular form of communication between teenagers, surpassing cell-phone calls, landline calls, face-to-face conversation and e-mails. This finding, published by the Pew Research Center in 2010, is probably not news to teenagers and their parents. But a closer look at the statistics reveals just how quickly and substantially communication has changed. According to the study, 72 percent of teenagers aged 12–17 are texting, up from 51 percent in 2006. One in three teens sends more than 100 texts per day—about 3,000 per month.

“Cell phone use has increased rapidly and has become ubiquitous, especially among adolescents and early adults,” said Murdock. “I’m sure there’s good and bad that will come of the trend, but it is amazing how little research has examined its implications for teenagers.”

According to the same Pew study, 75 percent of teenagers aged 12–17 owned a cell phone in 2010, up from 45 percent in 2004. And while there have been concerns about the health effects of new technologies in the past, from television to the Internet, Murdock and her team are curious whether cell phone usage has different repercussions.

“The thing that makes cell phone use particularly interesting to us is that it’s a form of communication accessible at all times,” said Murdock. “Many people feel a compulsion to answer their phone, check a new text, or text right back. In fact, the literature suggests in some circles there is a social expectation for immediate responding via cell phones.”

Some research has explored safety issues relating to texting and driving. However, it is unclear how mobile phone habits and social expectations may affect teenagers’ overall communication patterns and well-being.

With children using cell phones at a younger age, health-related issues may start cropping up even earlier. “I’ve talked to elementary school guidance counselors in this area who are seeing more and more  cell phone use among their students,” said Murdock. Will cell-phone use affect their ability to communicate face-to-face, or influence the development of their reading and writing skills?

Gorman and Derby, both psychology majors, spent the first part of the summer working with Murdock to create a one-hour survey concerning communication and well-being. The team prepared a successful project proposal for W&L’s Institutional Review Board (IRB), an ethics panel that reviews all projects using human and animal subjects. Murdock and the students are now recruiting 50 high school students, along with a parent, to participate in the Communication and Health in Adolescence (CHA) Study (see sidebar).

To create the best questions and methods for the survey, Gorman and Derby analyzed the latest psychological literature about communication in adolescence. They also reviewed various ways to measure the psychological constructs in the study, from standardized questionnaires previously deemed valid and reliable to different modes of behavioral observation.

“There are a handful of measures out there for the material we’re studying that have already been validated in previous research,” said Gorman. “And if there isn’t an existing measure of something, we can still build off the results of other studies to create a new measure.”

More recently they’ve been fine-tuning their questions and “just making sure that the survey is as efficient as it can be,” said Gorman. “There are a lot of nuances in building a good survey.”

Since this project is a pilot study, with a small subject pool, the primary goal is to get a better understanding of the key issues associated with adolescent well-being and communication. “We’re trying to build a foundation for future research,” said Derby.

— by Amy Balfour ’89, ’93L

News Contact:
Jeffery G. Hanna
Executive Director of Communications and Public Affairs
(540) 458-8459

If you know any W&L faculty who would be great profile subjects, tell us about them! Nominate them for a web profile.