UNC-Chapel Hill and the Winston Family Foundation launch a national center to study the effects of technology and social media on childhood brain development

A new research center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill will examine the long-term effects of technology and social media use on the social and emotional development of adolescents, thanks to a $10 million donation dollars from the Winston Family Foundation. The Winston National Center on Technology Use, Brain and Psychological Development will create more tools for parents, caregivers and teens to make more informed choices about how they interact with technology and social media.

James Winston, Jr., Ph.D. and trustee of the Winston Family Foundation, has decades of experience in the addiction field. He saw powerful and alarming correlations between increased device use and addiction and was driven to relaunch the original educational initiative, the Winston Family Technology and Teen Brain Development Initiative – or WiFi – in partnership with UNC-Chapel Hill in 2018. As the original seed grew and the national narrative coalesced around a growing concern for adolescent mental health, it became clear that more needs to be done not just to educate parents, but to establish the neurobiological science behind the trends. The Winston National Center is the next step in this effort.

Mitch Prinstein, Ph.D., ABPP, scientific director of the American Psychological Association and John Van Seters Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Neuroscience at UNC-Chapel Hill, and Eva Telzer, Ph.D., associate professor at the UNC-Chapel Hill Psychology and Neurosciences, will serve as co-directors of the new center, evolving from their current co-directors of WiFi. Their preliminary research indicates that teens spend more than eight hours a day on cell phones, with a significant portion of the time on social media. The Winston National Center will further explore the links between adolescent online behavior and a range of mental health symptoms.

“Clearly, we need to learn more about the influence of social media experiences and device use on mental health,” said UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz. “Carolina-based researchers are leading the way in this emerging field, and this gift from Dr. Winston and the Winston Family Foundation will further fuel the scientific discoveries we need.” We can develop our knowledge in ways that better equip our children and our society to navigate an evolving, but often dangerous, technological and social landscape.

Prinstein, Telzer and their team will pursue a five-pronged mission focused on education, awareness, research, public health and adolescent engagement.

“Adolescence marks rapid brain development that makes adolescents highly sensitive to their environment. Technology-mediated contexts have the potential to “rewire” the developing brain,” Telzer said. “Scientific research, like ours, will hopefully create the impetus for more scrutiny, oversight and regulation of social media platforms.”

In June 2020, 63% of parents in the United States said their teens were spending more time using social media than they did pre-pandemic, according to Statista research.

“The goal of the center is to help families and educators understand how the increased use of technology is shaping children. We found that high levels of device use and social media consumption alter neurobiological development in ways that can impair well-being,” Winston said. “The significant increase in reports of mental health issues, reduced attention spans, lack of empathy and critical thinking all indicate that parents, educators and caregivers urgently need more information on how to support children and teens as they use highly engaging devices and social platforms.

“We know that the way our children interact with technology could have remarkable consequences for their development,” explained the center’s co-director, Prinstein. “The research we undertake now and how we translate that research into practical resources can ultimately help our children succeed in the future.”

The gift also establishes the first endowed faculty position in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, the Winston Family Professor Emeritus position.

In addition to the Distinguished Professorship, the Winston Family Foundation gift will provide seed funding to support two additional assistant professors at Carolina, an expanded research team, two data analysts, and additional staff members dedicated to strategic partnerships and raising awareness among parents and teachers.

“We are very grateful for the Winston Family Foundation’s commitment to the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience. The Winston National Center represents a new way forward and makes Carolina the place the world turns to to meet this urgent challenge,” said Terry Rhodes, dean of UNC College of Arts & Sciences, home to the department of psychology and neurosciences.

The Winston family has supported a wide variety of businesses at UNC-Chapel Hill for generations, and their presence at the University dates back more than 150 years. The Winston Family Foundation includes James Winston, Jr. ’81, Ph.D. ’92; McKimmon WinstonMason; Bob Winston III ’84; Charles Winston, Jr.; and Franklin Beard.

About the Winston Family Foundation
The Winston Family Foundation was established in 2018 by the family of the late James H. Winston, a businessman and philanthropist from Jacksonville, Florida. The foundation’s mission is to raise awareness and catalyze social change through the support of scientific research, educational initiatives and partnerships, and support for youth and the arts.

About University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the nation’s first public university, is a global leader in higher education known for its innovative teaching, research, and public service. A member of the prestigious Association of American Universities, Carolina consistently ranks as the best value for academic quality in American public higher education. Now in its third century, the University offers 77 bachelor’s, 107 master’s, 65 doctoral and seven professional degree programs in 14 schools, including the College of Arts and Sciences. Every day, faculty, staff, and students shape their teaching, research, and public service to meet North Carolina’s most pressing needs in every region and in all 100 counties. Carolina’s more than 340,000 alumni live in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, U.S. territories, and 159 countries. More than 185,000 live in North Carolina.

To learn more about the Winston Family Initiative in Adolescent Brain Development and Technology, visit www.wifi-initiative.org.

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