UNH Professor Kelsey Boucher provides insight on how New Hampshire communities can minimize harm and promote positive social media usage for youth

Kate Matthews UNH '24, Extension Health & Well-Being Summer Intern
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Minimizing harm and promoting positive outcomes: An interview with UNH Professor Kelsey Boucher  

Public Health Issue

In May 2023, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued an advisory acknowledging the effects that social media has on youth mental health. The report recognizes the positive outcomes that social media can promote, notably offering affirming spaces of connection for youth with marginalized identities, however, it highlights growing concerns as research has demonstrated the variety of negative impacts that social media can have- physical, mental, social, and emotional. The report details risks of harm, the prevalence of excessive media usage, current gaps in knowledge, and calls for all to act- policymakers, technology companies, families, youth, and researchers- in order to reduce the risks of social media. To read the executive summary of the advisory report follow this link: Social Media and Youth Mental Health: The U.S. Surgeon General's Advisory.

New Hampshire Initiatives

Responding to the national advisory, New Hampshire has announced several initiatives to further understand how social media usage impacts its young residents and educate them on the risks of social media usage. The NH Attorney General launched an investigation into social media’s impact on young people, encouraging anyone who has “witnessed or experienced the negative impact of social media use on the mental health of young people” to detail their observations in an email to SMPImpact@doj.nh.gov. Additionally, Governor Chris Sununu signed an executive order “directing a statewide response to the impact of social media platforms on New Hampshire’s youth,” which requires the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services to propose curriculum guidelines for K-12 health education courses that will detail possible negative outcomes of social media use. The executive order also calls for the creation of a website with resources for caregivers, educators, and youth regarding risks of social media and tips for reducing the time spent on these platforms, as well as creating a state-wide communications and media campaign that will share similar content.

Interview with Professor Kelsey Boucher

Kelsey Boucher is a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Social Work department at the University of New Hampshire and is passionate about social justice and adolescent technology use. She was the Research Coordinator for the Measuring Youth Media Exposure (MYME) Study at the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital, which explored the impact of media use on physical and mental health in adolescents. Kelsey was gracious enough to share her thoughts about the Surgeon General advisory report, the resulting New Hampshire initiatives, and the impact of identity on social media outcomes.

How do your passions for equity and diversity intersect with your interest in youth and social media usage?

Oppression is systemic. Social media is a huge part of everyone’s daily life and, by nature, is reflective of those systems. If our systems are causing harm to people with marginalized identities, that is likely to come out in social media as well. When it comes to social media use, there are disproportionate negative impacts on mental health in communities of color as well as folks that are neurodiverse and gender diverse. Also, when you think about the very divisive nature of the comment section, that certainly comes out for people being targeted by cyberbullying. That being said, I also want to speak to the positive nature of social media. When it comes to social media, we actually have a lot of choice in how we participate in that exchange online. I’m really interested in positive media use because you can use social media and technology to advance the goal of social justice. You can find community and find voices and perspectives that are different from your own and that serves that greater mission of equity and community. You can also curate your feed to be open to that learning exchange and that can apply to current events in real time.

What do you think is the significance of the Surgeon General issuing the advisory report about social media’s effect on youth well-being?

I’m really happy about the issuance of the report. I think that social media use is a public health issue and I think that the report will highlight the reality of the online lives of youth. There have been a lot of young people that have had negative mental health outcomes as a result of social media use and it’s important to make the statement that “We are taking this seriously.” It needs to be made clear to companies and schools and teachers and families and kids so that we can say “This is a problem, these are the specific issues, how do we move forward to minimize those impacts?" It’s like anything else, for example, video games and junk food. We have choices and we can take personal responsibility, but it’s also the responsibility of the company profiting to be really clear about what the impacts are and to not say “Oh, we don’t know yet.” Well, we know now. Here’s the research. It’s very clear that folks are being impacted negatively and there’s also a variety of systemic factors. Again, if you are in a vulnerable population, you are at a higher risk of certain different kinds of addictions. It’s like food, smoking, etc. Social media is no different. We can choose to participate and also there are people who are more vulnerable, have less protection and are more susceptible to those higher risk outcomes.  

The advisory report emphasizes the need for “actions taken by groups across the spectrum: policymakers, technology companies, researchers, families, and children and adolescents themselves” to “maximize the benefits and reduce the risk of harm posed by social media.” What do you see as the potential barriers to engagement from and/or effective collaboration between all of these populations and groups?

Technology companies are companies. They want to sell ads, that’s the goal for them. If you think about Disney Plus or YouTube Kids, these are really more specific streaming [services] that are geared towards kids and have age-appropriate content. Whereas social media is always available and there are no parameters, and everyone can access it. The motivation to make wide-sweeping changes is going to need to be pretty significant because right now, it’s working for them [the companies]…The motivation is going to need to be financial and [will require] social pressure to make any big changes.

The language of these newly announced New Hampshire initiatives is almost entirely focused on negative aspects of technology, for instance the proposal for a curriculum is centered around dangers and the AG investigation is only requesting negative experiences. Do you think that this approach could lead to a narrower understanding of the impacts of social media on youth and limit dialogue about its positive aspects?

It is really important to acknowledge that there are potential negative impacts, but you also need to be able to teach youth to be more informed consumers of social media. The positive aspects require a little bit of courage, it requires going against the tide of trends and social pressure. It means setting limits and boundaries and being more aware of your use, so it’s a little more difficult, but it’s around creating a new culture about how we use social media vs. “I’m bored” or “I’m feeling anxious so I’m going to pick up my phone” There are also positive ways to use social media. Like online activism, speaking out against oppression and creating connections and community is really powerful. I do think we probably don’t focus on the positives enough since we do want people to know the negative aspects so we are able to better avoid them.

What are some topic areas you would hope to see outlined in the curriculum when it is proposed?

Things I would hope to see are an emphasis on bystander responsibility when it comes to cyberbullying. This, again, will take a little bit more of that courage in usage and creating community. Also, parental and caregiver involvement. That’s always a constant. And really even more than being involved, aware and limiting, really being a role model around how to use social media. It sets a tone and a culture of what social media use is and should be. Also, the creation and enforcement of age limits on these platforms because, while there are ways to monitor conflict, it’s not always monitored very quickly and kids can see things that they should not be seeing.

According to the most recent data, 88.3% of New Hampshire residents are white and 37% live in rural areas. How do you think these demographics should guide the state's approach in its new initiatives?

I think regarding the impact of race on social media use, it’s important to think about community and support. Living in a predominantly white state, we need to think about how we can make sure that we are creating community and support for folks of color, and [we should] always, but certainly if there are harmful effects from social media, being specifically attentive to that.  

I think it’s also important to acknowledge the reality of after-school hours when you live in a rural area. If you’re home alone and isolated, that likely means more time on social media unless you are with your friends. The flip side of that is there are positive aspects of building community online, and in a state like this, it can sometimes be really hard to find people with your common interests in your local area and with the use of social media you have a broader scope to say “I want to do this activity,” and you can find someone online who also wants to do that and you can create community or find activities. In that way, it can be a powerful tool to find your people.

Are there any NH-specific resources you would recommend to youth, families, schools, communities, etc. to navigate technology usage?

I am a huge proponent of media literacy training and I would highly recommend Media Power Youth. They’re a great organization that has trainings for parents, educators, and youth. This organization helps youth create a more balanced, mindful consumption of media. They also work with the Digital Wellness Lab at Boston Children’s Hospital and are evidence-based and local; they’re very much a part of New Hampshire and understand New Hampshire issues.

Also, after-school programs for younger populations [are helpful]. Once that becomes maybe less common as kids get older, joining clubs, teams, student organizations for youth can be a great support as well. Whatever community looks like for them. That connection is really important for everyone and increases all positive health outcomes.

Resources for learning more:

Child Welfare Information GatewaySocial Media Safety

Media Power Youth 


NH Attorney General Investigation: Social Media Impact on Young People 

NH Executive Order 2023-04: An Order Directing a Statewide Response to the Impact of Social Media Platforms on New Hampshire's Youth

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