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Coming of Age in a Digital World

Coming of Age in a Digital World

Using tools from fMRI to smartphone data, psychology professor Alexandra Rodman ’06 is studying the developing brain and associated changes during adolescence—when, research shows, 75 percent of all psychiatric disorders emerge.

Story by Sarah Abrams
Photography by Tony Luong

At Northeastern University, Alexandra Rodman ’06 directs a research laboratory that uses social experiences—from experimental tasks to phone usage—as a lens to better understand what makes adolescents unique and why they are at heightened risk for mental health problems, especially depression and anxiety. Greater insight into the neurobiological, psychological, and emotional factors that govern the adolescent social brain, Rodman says, has the potential to inform more-effective interventions for preventing and treating mental health disorders.

“Teens are notoriously preoccupied by social approval, and this is by design,” Rodman says. “Their brains are especially attuned to social information, they’re highly motivated to deepen peer relationships and forge an independent identity, and they’re particularly impacted by social stress. In fact, most mental health disorders during adolescence emerge in the aftermath of an interpersonal stressor, like conflict with a friend or a breakup.”

While adolescence is a time of stress, Rodman asserts, it’s also an important time for learning and rapid brain development—a period of reorganization in the brain that leads to greater “plasticity” and is extremely responsive to input from the environment, she says. “This in- crease in neural plasticity allows teens to make enormous strides in cognitive abilities.”

“As a child, it’s really your caregivers who are, we joke, your ‘prefrontal cortex,’” Rodman says. “They co-regulate your emotions with you and facilitate how you move through the world, including socially. It’s during adolescence when you learn how to do that on your own—referred to as a sensitive period of social learning—and it has major implications for your outcomes and well-being as an adult. But this plasticity is also ac- companied by greater risk for mental health problems.”

Rodman can trace her interest in mental health back to her time at Milton when she served as a peer liaison between her dorm and Milton’s mental health services. “Even then, I was interested in why people may feel more or less able to handle certain stressors depending on the person, point in time, and context,” she says. Her desire to find the answers led her to major in clinical psychology at Tufts University, where she focused on understanding what is happening in the brain that might put people at particular risk for developing mental health problems.

It was when she learned about adolescence as a period of both tremendous growth and vulnerability that she chose, over the course of her doctoral and postdoctoral studies at Harvard University, to place her focus on the mechanisms underlying mental illness through the lens of development.

“When I first became interested in the question ‘Why does mental illness happen?,’ I felt that research studies focused on adults seemed to be an incomplete picture,” Rodman says. “We’ve missed that window of emergence, so my research takes a developmental perspective focusing on adolescence to capture that arc of transition and onset. In adolescence, we have the potential to have not only a better understanding of why mental illness happens, but also a more promising opportunity to intervene and ultimately shift trajectories of risk during this more plastic brain state.”

“In order to move the needle,” she says, “we have to focus on what is most important and salient during this time and what factors really tax the system. We know that the social landscape completely changes during adolescence, and on a neuro- biological, cognitive, and emotional level, peers take on this whole new meaning, where negative peer experiences are particularly stressful. In my work, I study the interplay of all these things with the hope that it will gain us the most purchase in understanding risk for mental health problems.”

Instead of taking a deficits-based approach, or focusing solely on what’s going wrong during adolescence, Rodman believes it’s also critical to study the strengths that protect adolescents from mental health problems. “These relation- ships between negative experiences and negative outcomes, they’re not deterministic,” she says. “Some people develop negative outcomes; some people don’t. What is that heterogeneity, and can we push that lever to dial up resilience for the kids who need more protective armor to help them through a difficult time?”

As director of the Social Development and Wellbeing Lab at Northeastern, where she was recently appointed assistant professor in the Department of Psychology and Center for Cognitive and Brain Health, Rodman is launching a three-year study. Funded by the National Institutes of Health, the study will take a two-pronged approach that involves both “in lab” and “real-world” measurement.

The study will follow 80 adolescents ages 12 to 17 for eight months. It will include computerized tasks during neuroimaging in the lab, and tracking participants’ phone usage. By integrating data from various sources, Rodman says, the study will bridge a gap between the lab and the real-world to “have a more complete picture of the adolescent experience and greater traction for predicting risk for mental health problems.”

In the study’s “in-lab” approach, lab members—who include post-baccalaureate, doctoral, and post- doctoral students, along with a collaborating computer scientist— will run participants through various tasks that tap cognitive, social, and emotional processing, including a task that measures how adolescents manage peer approval and rejection while undergoing fMRI neuroimaging. Participants are asked to rate photos of peers and, in turn, receive feedback about how others perceive them. They’re also given information about how favorably the peers rated others in the study—effectively how “nice” or “mean” they are.

“The task actually mirrors some of the things kids do on their phones,” Rodman explains, “which is making a first impression based on someone’s picture and receiving that information as well. As adults, we get to decide how seriously we want to take this type of information based on other contextual factors, like ‘niceness,’ but we don’t know whether teens use these same strategies.” The teens’ responses to the feedback will help researchers understand how teens process, learn from, and integrate peer feedback into their worldview—and how that may relate to their risk for mental health problems.

“At Milton, I was struck by the breath of opportunities for students to pursue a wide array of interests and experiences,” says Rodman, “and to ultimately forge their own individualized path with depth, authenticity, and confidence. And we celebrated each other along the way.” Rodman, fourth from right, with Octet, one of Milton’s a cappella groups.

In the study’s “real world” approach, researchers will track the participants’ smartphone use over an eight-month period—one of the longest research periods of this kind to date. Tracking will include monitoring the teens’ screen time, phone and text logs, daily routines and social activities, social media and app usage, sleep and physical activity, and time spent around others.

From time to time, researchers will “ping” participants’ phones to ask, “What are you doing? How are you feeling? Who are you with?” A particularly lengthy phone call might elicit a ping inquiring about the nature of the call—who they were talking to and why. Smartwatches will measure their physiological response, such as heart rate, throughout the day.

Rodman describes this segment of the study as “teens in the wild— an unparalleled lens into the social worlds of teens that we rarely get to see.” By acquiring repeated samplings of how teens are doing over time, it will provide an understanding of the “dynamic fluctuations in thoughts and feelings and day-to-day experiences as they move through their world,” she says.

The study will also help yield a more nuanced understanding of the effects of social media on today’s youth, Rodman says. Although socializing through smartphones is a paradigm shift in teen social development, it’s not necessarily all bad, and simple metrics like “screen time” don’t tell the whole story. “Living life out in the world can result in good and bad experiences, and socializing online is really just a vehicle through which adolescents now live out their lives,” she says. “That’s why it’s so important that we drill down to a more fine-grained level of understanding and try not to oversimplify this complex behavior,” she says.

Rodman is excited by the possibilities presented by tracking smartphone use. “While experimental tasks in the lab can offer insights into processes happening ‘under the hood’—like cognitive biases and neural functioning,” she says, “it doesn’t necessarily reflect experiences in the real world. Instead, collecting data intensively, over time, allows for greater granularity and personalized modeling. By combining the two complementary approaches, we can link underlying cognitive and neurobiological processes to real-world experiences and behaviors, which will better position us to predict which factors increase vulnerability and which buffer teens from stressors to enhance wellbeing.”

As the study’s results begin to unfold, and when the “hows, whens, and whys” of who is at risk are better understood, the researchers hope to begin using tools familiar to today’s teens—their own smartphones—to deliver “light touch” interventions. “We know they’re at greater risk during adolescence, Rodman says, but all of that is kind of a dead end if we don’t also identify the resilience factors.

“This will not be your typical, one-size-fits-all intervention. We will use a precision approach to behavioral nudging, where the nudge to enhance resilience following a stressor will be tailored to that person and fashioned from their actual data. That’s where machine learning comes into play, where we can parse the participants’ data to understand when this person is most at risk and what kind of intervention will be best.”

As points of vulnerability are identified, “we can nudge or prompt them to engage in the type of behavior that has already been shown to mitigate their worsening symptoms,” Rodman says. As these resilience factors are better understood, the findings will offer a more refined approach for preventing and treating depression and anxiety.

“With this approach,” she says, “we may be able to implement more effective, scalable interventions that build resilience based on participants’ own data—whether it’s spending more time outside; spending less time on social media; physical activity; a transportive song, movie, or book; or reaching out and socializing with others.”

These interventions, adds Rodman, who also trained as a clinical psychologist, are especially import- ant because traditional therapy is of- ten difficult to access, costly, and not always tailored to the person or circumstances. Phone-based nudging derives from the individual’s personal data is low burden and accessible to all.

Over the next three years, Rodman expects to begin publishing the findings, making recommendations at both the policy and personal levels. “Providing this more in-depth, nuanced understanding of the adolescent experience will help us all— people making policy decisions, but also families making decisions—just all the way down the line.”

The Community Issue

What do we owe to one another, our communities, and the world? In this issue, we take a look at what “community” means to Milton and the ways in which the school goes beyond the jargon to create genuine, mutually beneficial, lasting connections.