Chapel Hill, N.C. — A $10 million gift from the Winston Family Foundation will help fund a new research center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to examine the long-term effects of technology and social media use on teen development.
The Winston National Center on Technology Use, Brain and Psychological Development is due to create more tools for parents, caregivers and teens to make better informed choices about how they interact with technology and social media. The gift is expected to build on three years of research focused on the link between technology use and teen mental health.
“It is clear we need to know more about the influence of social media experiences and device use on mental health,” UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz said in a news release. “Carolina-based researchers are leading the way in this emerging field, and this gift from Dr. Winston and the Winston Family Foundation will fuel more of the scientific discovery we need.
“We can grow our knowledge in a way that better equips our children and our society to navigate an evolving, but oftentimes dangerous, landscape of tech and social media.”
Winston Family Foundation director Dr. James Winston Jr. has decades of experience in the field of addiction, according to a release from UNC-Chapel Hill. Winston has seen “alarming correlates” between increased device use and addition. It led to the 2018 start of the original initiative known as the Winston Family Initiative in Technology and Adolescent Brain Development, which is in partnership with the university.
American Psychological Association chief science officer Dr. Mitch Prinstein, UNC-Chapel Hill associate professor of psychology Dr. Eva Telzer and their team are expected to pursue a five-pronged mission focused on education, outreach, research, public health and adolescent involvement. The group’s preliminary research indicates teenagers spend more than eight hours daily on cell phones, with a significant portion of time on social media. The Winston National Center plans to further explore the links between teens’ online behavior and a range of mental health symptoms.
“The teenage years mark rapid brain development that makes teens highly sensitive to their environment,” Telzer said. “Technology-mediated contexts have the potential to ‘rewire’ the developing brain.
“Scientific research, like ours, will hopefully create the impetus for more monitoring, oversight and regulation of social media platforms.”
Statista research shows that as of June 2020, 63% of parents in the U.S. reported their teenagers spent more time on social media than they did before the pandemic.
“The goal of the center is to help families and educators understand how the increased use of technology shapes children,” Winston said. “We have discovered that high levels of device use and social media consumption alters neurobiological development in ways that can be detrimental to well-being,”
Winston said he’s seen reports of a rise in mental health issues, shorter attention spans, lack of empathy and lack of critical thinking.
The gift also establishes the first endowed professorship in the department of psychology and neuroscience, the Winston Family Distinguished Professorship.
The family of the late James H. Winston – a lifelong businessman and philanthropist in Jacksonville, Florida – established the Winston Family Foundation in 2018. The mission of the foundation is to increase awareness and catalyze social change through the support of scientific research, educational initiatives and partnerships, and support for youth and the arts.