Linda Charmaraman Forbes Ignite’s New Scientific Advisor
By Allison Bolt
Pioneering wellbeing awareness through social media research, with a diversity and inclusion lens
“I wanted to go where people were too afraid to go, because I felt like this was going to be a whole new way of interacting with the world,” Dr. Linda Charmaraman says about the beginning of her journey. When she first started out, she was on the path toward researching mainstream media. Yet, she knew she wanted to focus on social media even before Facebook really took off. Her interest in what was at the time a new frontier has now made her a pioneer in research on social media and its effects on youth wellbeing.
Today, Dr. Charmaraman is a Senior Research Scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women and is Forbes Ignite’s new Scientific Advisor. One of her current projects is a workshop program for middle school youth, an age group that’s never lived in a world without the internet and social media.
It all started with “NIH-funded studies in middle schools in the greater Boston area about social media and what people are doing on smartphones, YouTube, and games,” she says. “Our primary goal was to examine associations between social technology use and adolescent mental and physical health.” Soon she found that the students’ parents, counselors, and teachers wanted more than the research and analytics behind the studies — they wanted tangible guidance.
“We decided we’re just going to start creating these workshops for middle schoolers so it’s not a burden for parents who might not have time, and the schools already have a really packed schedule,” she says. “So, we started pre-COVID where we’re in person for four days, for four hours each day, getting to know how these young people are using social media in unexpected ways. We invited them to co-create healthier technology use scenarios and even co-design apps that could help them regulate their own use.”
This setup empowers young people to take their relationship with social media into their own hands. Rather than an adult telling them to get off of their phone, they can understand the relationship between social media and their wellbeing and monitor themselves while also using social media as a positive tool for civic engagement and building community. Dr. Charmaraman also directs the ongoing Media & Identity Study, an international survey of over 5,000 adult participants since 2011 in over 20 countries about media use, social identities, digital citizenship, and civic engagement.
“This is a way for us to empower tweens and teens with their own self-awareness and help them realize that there’s so many different choices they could make that can really improve their online experience,” she says. “For instance, having a more positive network of people so that someone will actually come and help you out when you’re asking for help. A lot of people don’t realize that you have the chance to curate your own network. At that young age, it’s considered rude to reject somebody’s friend request and we want people to know that it’s okay to hide people, turn people off, mute people to enhance your wellbeing.”
Now, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the workshops are being held virtually and offer the same empowerment tools with the addition of a social outlet during a time of social isolation. Along with her collaborator, Dr. Catherine Delcourt, who is a computer scientist at Wellesley College with industry experience at YikYak, Google, and Apple, Dr. Charmaraman is already looking toward the future of the workshops.
“We are trying to figure out a way to develop stronger STEM identities in young people, especially girls and girls of color who might not imagine themselves as people who can be computer scientists in the future,” she says. “We’re using these workshops to try to create this environment to empower them with the prosocial tools that they could use to see themselves in a STEM field.”
The collaborators also have plans to further discuss and provide tools for adolescents to understand their mental health, recognize the signs when they may need help, and normalize these topics. They also plan to offer one day workshops on specific topics such as privacy controls and body image in relation to curating social media photos. One of their goals is to provide these workshops to families free of charge, so that no one is turned away due to economic circumstances. They rely on sponsorships to continue these community-based engagements.
Throughout her journey, Dr. Charmaraman’s countless award-winning research and projects have incorporated a focus on diversity. Currently, she’s working on the Forbes Ignite Cognitive Diversity Project: Understanding Innovative Teams. On this project, she is developing a framework incorporating psychology, neuroscience, culture, and identity for companies and organizations to understand social dynamics among high performing and creative teams.
“I think, in general, I have this obsession with diversity and all that it means to different people,” she says. “As a Thai American and first-generation college student in the U.S., I know what it’s like to be the only one in the room that looks like me and has the background that I have.”
“So, I think cognitive diversity can be used in a way that could really elevate the voices and experiences of many different sectors of the population in so many different situations. Whether it’s in a decision-making context of a workspace, or it could be in the artistic creations of a theater company, or it could be in a math class in middle school. To embrace the different ways people learn and understand each other, I think that’s something that deserves to be looked at further.”
Through her research and projects, she hopes to inspire more young people, especially girls and girls of color, who want to become scientists. “I feel like my journey has been about people allowing me to take a risk and me deciding that this risk was worth taking. If I get rejected here and there, one of my mentors said that meant that I was on the right track,” she says.
“Don’t be the one to reject yourself. There’s a lot of rejection that’s going to happen in life and that’s part of being a human being, trying new things, and seeing what is on the other side of that window.”