Using the Digital World to Learn More About Teen Life

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Candice Odgers uses digital data to enrich research about teen behavior. Photo by Les Todd/Duke University Photography
Candice Odgers uses digital data to enrich research about teen behavior. Photo by Les Todd/Duke University Photography

Durham, NC – Parents may be alarmed that four in five teenage cellphone owners sleep with their phones, but adolescents’ intimate relationship with technology can also provide new avenues for research into causes of teen behavior problems, Candice Odgers said Tuesday during the Thomas A. Langford Lecture.

Odgers joined Duke in July as associate director of the Center for Child and Family Policy, and associate professor of public policy and psychology. Her research uses new technologies, including mobile phones and Google Street View, to enrich the study of behavior problems in children and adolescents.

In one project, the MiLife Study, Odgers’ team receives regular text messages from teenagers. Those reports allow researchers to build a more fine-textured picture of adolescents’ daily life.

“Most research has focused on the effects of catastrophic occurrences such as abuse,” Odgers said. “We know less about the drip, drip, drip of daily life and how it may be influencing kids’ behavior and health outcomes. You can think of it as a film, versus a snapshot, of daily life.”

In another project, Google Street View gives Odgers’ team a quick, cost-effective way to gather large swaths of data about children’s neighborhoods, such as presence of green space and signs of physical decay.

The research has led to surprising conclusions. For instance, Odgers team compared poor children who grew up in concentrated poverty to poor children who grew up in mixed-income neighborhoods. The latter group had more behavior problems, not less.

“The idea has been that these kids will do better, and that idea has informed social policy. But in looking at this one outcome, behavior problems, we found that when surrounded by affluence, poor children actually do worse.”

The lecture took place at Doris Duke Center in Duke Gardens, and is part of a series established by Provost Peter Lange as a tribute to former Duke provost Thomas Langford. The lectures offer new and recently promoted faculty a chance to address colleagues from other disciplines. (Alison Jones/Duke University)

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