NIH Funds Study of Teens' Messages and E-Mails

$3.4 Million Grant to Aid Project Tracking Student Group Through High School

May 6, 2009

Dr. Marion Underwood recently received a $3.4 million dollar grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to conduct the first-ever study of the content of teens’ texts, e-mails and instant messages.

Dr. Marion Underwood believes the study will shed light on the hidden world of teen peer culture.

Underwood, Ashbel Smith Professor of Psychology in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences, has been studying 250 children and their families since 2003, when the students were in the third grade.

The study began as an effort to understand how children make and keep friends. As the students grew up, it became clear that electronic communication was an enormous part of their social lives.  Underwood adapted her study to capture this important aspect of the students’ social development.

Today, the teens in the study are 14 and in the ninth grade. In order to study what teens actually say in their electronic communication, the students have all been given unlimited text, e-mail and instant messaging.    The funding from NIH will allow Underwood to continue her “BlackBerry Project” until the students graduate from high school.

“Dr. Underwood’s research has been important in shaping our understanding of children and adolescents’ complex social networks, and their impact on development,” said Dr. Bert Moore, dean of the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences. “This new award reflects the esteem with which Dr. Underwood’s work is held and her innovative approach to understanding factors promoting successful development in children.”

Already, Underwood’s research has found:

  • The average user sends and receives approximately 1,321 texts a month, or 43 texts a day.
  • Parents and teens talk frequently — more interaction, in fact, than the researchers had expected.
  • One participant had more than 16,000 text messages in one month alone.

The students and the parents in the study know the online communication is being recorded, but they also know only a few people on Underwood’s research team can see the information and that confidentiality is strictly maintained.

“We think the results of our study will illuminate the hidden world of adolescent peer culture, and also guide policy decisions about teenagers’ access to electronic devices,” said Underwood.

A team of psychology students assists Underwood with the research. Dr. Kurt Beron, a professor of Economics and Public Policy in the School of Economic, Political and Policy Sciences, helps analyze the large volume of longitudinal data and serves as a Co-Investigator on the NIH-funded project.

Configuring the technology for capturing the content of teens’ electronic communication was a big challenge. It took the collaboration of four telecommunication partners to turn Underwood’s dream for the study into reality.

Sprint has provided the Blackberry devices and the service plans. In addition, Sprint Software Engineer John Guerra Jr. was able to configure the devices to capture the participants’ electronic communication.

Ceryx is providing the secure storage for the massive volume of data. Global Relay maintains the secure archive that allows the research team to see the archive in an organized, flexible format, and Shape Services provides the software that loads all the teens’ contacts and allows them to use instant messenger on the devices.

With the extension of the Blackberry Project, enabled by the NIH grant, Underwood and her team have years and millions of texts, e-mails and instant messages ahead of them, but already there have been some surprises.  “Although teens in our study do engage in mean behavior online and also discuss rule-breaking activities, there is also a vast amount of positive communication. We are especially struck by the volume of child-parent communication. We are also impressed with the positive, supportive communication between friends and romantic partners,” said Underwood.


Media Contact: Audrey Glickert, UT Dallas, (972) 883-4320, audrey.glickert@utdallas.edu
or the Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, newscenter@utdallas.edu

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A Sample Conversation
  When it became clear that electronic communication was an important part of social development for teens, Dr. Marion Underwood decided to track the conversations. Following is an example of a chat via text message and a translation in common language:

 
Text Message
 
Formalized
  Joe: Hey wuts up   Joe: Hey what’s up
  Mary: nm u?   Mary: Not much, you?
  J: nm. Lookin 4 ppl 2 invite tonite   J: Not much. Looking for people to invite tonight
  M: r u makin sure not 2 4get ne1?   M: Are you making sure not to forget anyone?
  J: think I got every1 nd idc if sum1 is left out   J: I think I got everyone and I don’t care if someone is left out
  M: y   M: Why?
  J: bc its my party :)

  J: Because it’s my party (smile)
  M: u shud care more! Wat if sum1 left u out? >:O   M: You should care more! What if someone left you out? (angry)
  J: lol I was jk

  J: Hahaha I was just kidding
  M: kk, g2g   M: Okay, I’ve got to go
  J: ttyl   J: Talk to you later.

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