Screen use by teenagers – or screenagers – is a public health issue that parents need help with, believes a University of Auckland researcher.

Dr Samantha Marsh has just been awarded a $150,000 explorer grant from the Health Research Council of New Zealand (HRC) to research an intervention to help parents reduce screen time in teens.

She said screen use was now the main activity of New Zealand youth and the use of newer mobile devices and social media has been linked with unhappiness, loneliness, depression, risk-taking, isolation, exclusion and suicide. But currently there were few tools available that effectively reduced screen-time in the long-term.

Marsh is to use her two year grant to design and test an intervention aimed at parents, to help them make decisions about reducing their teen’s screen time and to follow through on those decisions.

The intervention uses the principles of neuroeconomics, which argues that decision-making (particularly under risk and uncertainty) initiates in the emotion centre of the brain.  She was to use neuroeconomics to explore how to target emotion in the decision-making process, as opposed to relying on logic and rationalisation which she said had failed to address the issue.

“Rather than focusing on outcomes (ie. ‘we are doing this to reduce screen time’), this technique influences decision-making by focusing on values, and the beliefs that inspire us,” said March. “We might deeply value the idea of teens engaging with their environment or family, for example: excessive screen use merely represents a barrier or roadblock to this value.”

The ‘Start with WHY’ framework she proposes to use, has had success in the corporate world, but in the research environment it was a “radically different approach”, she said

Health Research Council chief executive, Professor Kath McPherson said the explorer grant scheme sought to attract and fund transformative research ideas with the potential for major impact on healthcare.

A total of 10 explorer grants were announced in late March worth a combined value of $1.5 million. They cover a range of health disciplines and include an idea to use smallpox proteins to treat human inflammation, and the development of an all-new test for diagnosing prostate cancer. A full list of the 2018 explorer grant recipients can be viewed here (you need to filter for ‘Researcher Initiated Proposals’, ‘Explorer Grants’ and ‘2018’ to view the list).

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