We will be imminently advertising PhD positions with our group at the MRC CBU, to start in October 2023.
If you are interested please read the research brief below and email Amy Orben with your CV and 2-3 paragraphs on what research projects you would be interested in doing.
Adolescent mental health has declined substantially in the last decade (Sadler et. al, 2018), stretching health services and making the area a medical research priority (MRC, 2019, Wellcome Trust, 2020). Concurrently, widespread digital innovation has radically altered child and adolescent behaviour (91% of 12–15-year-olds now own a smartphone; Ofcom, 2021). This has spurred pervasive concern that digitalisation and social media use might be decreasing adolescent mental health and well-being (Chief Medical Officer, 2019).
In the Digital Mental Health research programme, we are interested in how adolescent mental health outcomes are impacted by social media use in many different ways. There are various potential avenues for a PhD in this space, of which we provide a non-exhaustive list of examples below.
Note: At the CBU you can either apply for a PhD with a sole supervisor, or with another CBU PI joining as your co-supervisor in a close-knit supervisory team. We provide some suggestions below but are very flexible. You can also suggest co-supervisors from other departments at the University of Cambridge (e.g., Department of Psychology, Department of Psychiatry).
1) Development (potential CBU co-supervisor: Duncan Astle): We are interested in how developmental processes in adolescence, and potentially childhood, intersect with social media use. A PhD project could focus on how certain cognitive or neural changes during this time impact how adolescents interact with and react to social media and other digital environments.
2) Cognition (potential CBU co-supervisors depend on mechanisms and methods of interest): We are also interested in running projects to investigate the cognitive mechanisms linking social media use to mental health (either in clinical or community samples of adolescents). A PhD project might, for example, take a particular element of social media use or design, match it with cognitive theories/paradigms and then use survey data, experiments and/or computational modelling studies to examine whether this change impacts mental health.
3) Computational Modelling (potential CBU co-supervisor: Camilla Nord): There is a lot of scope to apply methods across the cognitive sciences to our research questions of interest. An example of this would be a PhD project examining how to model social media use computationally (see Lindström et al. 2021), understanding the drivers of use and individual differences in how the platforms are used. Work could also investigate when people feel like their social media use is out of control or ‘addictive’, and work to operationalise this in survey studies, computational models and/or experiments.
Blakemore, Sarah-Jayne, and Kathryn L. Mills. ‘Is Adolescence a Sensitive Period for Sociocultural Processing?’ Annual Review of Psychology 65, no. 1 (3 January 2014): 187–207. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-psych-010213-115202.
Nesi, Jacqueline, Sophia Choukas-Bradley, and Mitchell J. Prinstein. ‘Transformation of Adolescent Peer Relations in the Social Media Context: Part 1—A Theoretical Framework and Application to Dyadic Peer Relationships’. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review 21, no. 3 (September 2018): 267–94. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10567-018-0261-x.
Orben, Amy, Andrew K. Przybylski, Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, and Rogier A. Kievit. ‘Windows of Developmental Sensitivity to Social Media’. Nature Communications 13, no. 1 (December 2022): 1649. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-022-29296-3.
Crone, E.A., Konijn, E.A. Media use and brain development during adolescence. Nature Communications 9, 588 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-018-03126-x
Lindström, Björn, Martin Bellander, David T. Schultner, Allen Chang, Philippe N. Tobler, and David M. Amodio. ‘A Computational Reward Learning Account of Social Media Engagement’. Nature Communications 12, no. 1 (December 2021): 1311. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-19607-x.
Assessing and Addressing Social Media Use in a Clinical Context
Potential CBU co-supervisor: Tim Dalgleish
An area of interest to the Digital Mental Health programme is studying (mal)adaptive social media use in clinical populations or those at risk of a clinical diagnosis, an area of substantial concern where pre-existing theoretical approaches can substantially inform discovery science and translation (RCPsych, 2019). Again, there are multiple different PhD projects, and we detail some examples below:
1) Transdiagnostic approaches: A PhD project could study the influence of social media use in a) predicting adolescents receiving a mental health diagnosis, b) impacting those living with a mental health diagnosis, or c) determining recovery. Of particular interest is how we can approach these questions from a transdiagnostic perspective. For example, are some concerns about social media use negatively impacting mental health transdiagnostic (e.g., the ‘always on’ nature of social media) and some disorder-specific (e.g., eating disorder content)?
2) Mechanisms: Projects could also involve detailed investigations using theoretical and cognitive approaches to understand the mechanisms behind how social media exacerbates mental health problems, especially affective disorders. Experimental or neuroimaging studies could be used to test whether features of social media exacerbate maladaptive cognitive mechanisms prominent in affective disorders, e.g., the influence of prediction errors in social settings and rumination.
3) Clinical Contexts: The Digital Mental Health programme is also interested in understanding how social media use is assessed and examined in a clinical context, and how such processes could be improved and supported. A lot of previous work in this research area has relied on examining population averages, however we have made very little progress in helping individuals. A PhD project could focus on how to integrate assessment and adjustment of social media use into clinical treatment or how to develop methodologies to help adolescents on an individual basis.
Odgers, Candice L., and Michaeline R. Jensen. ‘Annual Research Review: Adolescent Mental Health in the Digital Age: Facts, Fears, and Future Directions’. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 61, no. 3 (2020): 336–48. https://doi.org/10.1111/jcpp.13190.
Meier, Adrian, and Leonard Reinecke. ‘Computer-Mediated Communication, Social Media, and Mental Health: A Conceptual and Empirical Meta-Review’. Communication Research, 21 October 2020, 009365022095822. https://doi.org/10.1177/0093650220958224.