Social Media Can Help Teens in State Care Feel Connected

Social Media Can Help Teens in State Care Feel Connected

Young people in state care may reap psychological, emotional, and social benefits through the use of social media networks, according to a new UK study by researchers from the Centre for Research on the Child and Family (CRCF) at the University of East Anglia in England.

Until now, many have assumed that social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp would only pose a risk for this vulnerable group.

But the new findings, published in the British Journal of Social Work, show that social media can help young people living in state care maintain healthy and appropriate birth family relationships and friendships, make new connections and ease transitions between placements and adult independence.

In particular, social media platforms such as Facebook can contribute to increased self-esteem and mental well-being, which is particularly helpful for young people in care who frequently report feeling worthless, depressed, and isolated.

“Young people in care face harder, faster, and steeper transitions into adulthood with fewer resources than their peers,” said lead researcher Dr. Simon Hammond. “Placement instability often leads to young people feeling abandoned and isolated at points in their lives when they are at their most vulnerable.

“The young people we worked with talked about how many friends or followers they had on social media. And it was the contacts outside their immediate state care environment that young people saw as their most precious commodity.”

For the study, Hammond made more than 100 visits to four residential care settings in England over a period of seven months. During this time, he conducted in-depth observations on how 10 young people routinely used social media in their everyday lives. He also conducted focus groups and interviews with the young people and their social care professionals.

According to the findings, having positive online networks helped young people in care gain “social capital”. In addition, digital networks were found to help piece together a fragmented social life and act as a bridge beyond the immediate care-home environment.

“Having a strong social support network helps with the physical and psychological isolation reported by young people in care,” said Hammond. “We found that emotional support from people outside the care environment was very important. Keeping up to date with friends and, in some cases birth family members, about everyday life events really helped provide a sense of belonging and connectedness.”

“Stigma and shame are described by many young people in state care. We found that social media provides a window to life before being in care and a way of distancing themselves from it.”

Social media can also help young people at risk of homelessness as they transfer out of state care.

“If young people can reconnect with, create and maintain networks, they have a better chance of accessing supportive networks when it comes to things like finding accommodation,” said Hammond.

In addition, social media offers adolescents the chance to network with organizations that can help them with opportunities for personal progression. However, young people in state care might not want to “like” or “follow” organizations that highlight their experiences because it may leave them vulnerable to stigma.

“Communication via social media carries risks for all users. However, these risks do not stop their usage. Understandably, from the perspective of staff at residential care homes, there was a lot of concern about how best to monitor internet use but we need to be engaged in this digital space to help protect society’s most vulnerable young people,” said Hammond.

Source: University of East Anglia

Analyzing ‘Stamp Bags’ in Real-Time May Serve as Early Warning System in Opioid Crisis

Analyzing 'Stamp Bags' in Real-Time May Serve as Early Warning System in Opioid Crisis

Stamp bags are small wax packets that contain mixtures of illicit drugs, most commonly heroin. These bags are packaged for sale and sometimes stamped with a graphic logo by drug dealers to market their contents.

A new University of Pittsburgh study suggests that analyzing these stamp bags on a regular basis can serve as an early warning system in the current opioid crisis by alerting local officials to new lethal drugs that have come into the community.

“The face of the current opioid overdose epidemic changes quickly from month to month. The ability to rapidly analyze drugs causing these overdoses, and make that knowledge available to all stakeholders, is critical to efforts to deal with the crisis,” said co-author Karl E. Williams, M.D., M.P.H., Allegheny County Medical Examiner.

For example, in just two years, the deadly drug fentanyl — an opioid that is 20 to 50 times more potent than heroin — went from nonexistent to detected in more than one in seven stamp bags analyzed by the Allegheny County Office of the Medical Examiner, according to an analysis led by the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health.

“We believe this way of examining drug evidence could be expanded upon for use in public health surveillance and monitoring in other regions,” said lead author Kathleen Creppage, M.P.H., C.P.H., a doctoral candidate in Pitt Public Health’s Department of Epidemiology.

“It could be used to inform educational campaigns, allocate limited resources, and devise prevention strategies. First responders also could benefit from knowing what drugs are in circulation so they can take proper precautions to protect themselves and be prepared with overdose reversal medications, such as naloxone.”

In the last decade, fatal heroin overdoses have increased by 300 percent in the U.S., with fentanyl and its analogs acting as major contributors to these deaths. Fentanyl is often implicated in clusters of overdose deaths when it is mixed with heroin, primarily because users do not realize what they are taking is more powerful than usual.

In Allegheny County, stamp bags seized as evidence by law enforcement authorities are submitted to the county’s Office of the Medical Examiner for testing. The drugs are sorted into batches based on similar characteristics, such as the stamp and color of the drug, and a single bag is randomly chosen from each batch to be tested.

For the study, the researchers compiled the medical examiner’s drug chemistry laboratory test results of stamp bag contents from 2010 through 2016. A total of 16,594 stamp bags were tested by the lab during that period.

Before 2014, fentanyl was nonexistent in these tested bags. By 2016 it was found in 15.5 percent of the tested stamp bags, with 4.1 percent containing fentanyl as the only controlled substance present.

Toxicology results from overdose victims take weeks or months, and state and national mortality data lag by about 18 months. Drug evidence testing is usually available much more quickly — in Allegheny County, for example, it is available for the current month.

Stamp bag testing and monitoring should not replace other drug surveillance systems, such as overdose mortality data and toxicology reports, said Creppage. “But it can be a powerful complement to these surveillance systems,” she said. “The data are available, and we need to identify and explore these different data sources as part of our efforts in understanding and combating the opioid epidemic.”

Senior author Anthony Fabio, Ph.D., M.P.H., associate professor of epidemiology at Pitt Public Health, added that the work “is an important step in developing multi-disciplinary tools to quickly identify current and future sources of new drugs that enter the illegal market.”

The findings are published in the journal Public Health Reports.

Source: University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences

Dishonest People Seen as Less Competent

Is a person’s moral behavior directly tied to his or her performance at work? Most people believe it is, according to a new study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

“Although arguments can be made that an individual’s moral behavior is, or should be, irrelevant to their overall competence, we found consistent support that immoral behavior reduced judgments of people’s competence,” said lead author Jennifer Stellar, Ph.D., of the University of Toronto.

For the study, Stellar and co-author, Robb Willer, Ph.D., of Stanford University, conducted a series of six experiments involving more than 1,500 participants. Throughout these experiments, the researchers depicted individuals acting immorally in hypothetical scenarios, such as shoplifting, stealing money from a donation jar, acting selfishly in economic games, cheating on a lab task, or receiving low morality ratings from coworkers. In other cases, the person was depicted as acting morally, such as donating money to charity.

Participants were then asked to rate how competent they believed each person to be at a particular task. For example, in one experiment, participants were asked how good they believed the hypothetical individual was at his or her job on a scale of one to 10.

In each of these experiments, participants consistently rated individuals who had committed moral transgressions as less capable of doing their jobs, completing specific tasks or being generally competent.

In general, people who were depicted as immoral were less well-liked and therefore perceived as worse in every way, including being less competent.

Stellar said she was surprised by these findings because in one of their early experiments, the researchers asked participants if morality was associated with competence, and most said it didn’t matter.

“We found that most people rated immoral behavior in one’s private life as irrelevant to determining how good that person was at their job. Essentially, people said they didn’t think they would use moral information in that way, but when they were provided with it, they did.”

Further evidence suggested that people engaged in immoral behaviors were seen as less competent because their actions caused them to be viewed as low in social intelligence.

“Social intelligence is often conceived of as the ability to manage complex social situations,” said Stellar. “It includes characteristics such as taking the others’ perspectives, being adaptable, managing impressions of oneself, and adhering to established social norms.”

“A person who is socially intelligent would understand when and why a coworker is angry and effectively manage their coworker’s potentially destructive emotional response.”

In one experiement, however, the researchers counteracted the concerns about social intelligence by telling some participants that the hypothetical individual’s coworkers rated him or her high in social intelligence.

“We found that when targets received high social intelligence ratings, immoral targets were no longer perceived as less competent than moral targets,” said Stellar.

While more studies are needed, Stellar believes that the findings suggest that people view immoral but socially intelligent individuals as Machiavellian, cunning, and strategic, rather than socially incompetent.

Source: American Psychological Association

Why Are Kids with Autism Less Social Than Peers?

In a new study, researchers set out to investigate why children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) tend to be less socially communicative than their typically developing (TD) peers. Their findings, published in the journal Molecular Autism, provide a glimpse into the brain mechanisms behind autism.

In recent years, scientists have proposed several hypotheses to help explain why ASD kids tend to pull away from social interactions: One popular theory is known as the social motivation hypothesis. This theory suggests that ASD kids aren’t inherently motivated to interact with others because they aren’t neurologically “rewarded” by social interactions the same way TD kids are.

“Most of us get a hit of dopamine when we interact with other people, whether it’s through making eye contact or sharing something good that’s happened to us — it feels good to be social,” said Dr. Katherine Stavropoulos, an assistant professor of special education in the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Riverside (UCR).

“The social motivation hypothesis says kids with autism don’t get that same reward from social interaction, so they don’t go out of their way to engage with people because it’s not rewarding for them.”

Another major theory is called sensory over-responsivity — also known as the overly intense world hypothesis. This theory posits that because kids with ASD interpret sensory cues more strongly than their TD peers, those with ASD tend to shy away from interactions they feel are overwhelming or negative.

“Kids with autism often find noises too loud or lights too bright, or they find them not intense enough,” Stavropoulos said. “Most of us wouldn’t want to talk to someone whom we perceive as screaming, especially in a room that was already too bright, with ambient noise that was already too loud.”

Rather, this theory suggests that such interactions would drive ASD children to withdraw from socialization as a self-soothing behavior.

But according to Stavropoulos, who also serves as assistant director of UCR’s SEARCH Family Autism Resource Center, it may be possible for these seemingly competing theories to exist in tandem.

For the study, Stavropoulos, who is also a licensed clinical psychologist with a background in neuroscience, and University of California, San Diego’s Leslie Carver, used electrophysiology to observe the neural activity of 43 children (20 ASD and 23 TD) aged seven to 10. They used a guessing game-style simulation that offered participants both social and nonsocial rewards.

Each child, wearing a cap with 33 electrodes, sat in front of a computer screen which showed pairs of boxes containing question marks. Much like the format of the “pick a hand” guessing game, the children then chose the box he or she believed was the correct one (in reality, the answers were randomized).

Stavropoulos said it was vital to design a simulation that would reveal the children’s neural reactions to both social and nonsocial rewards during two stages: reward anticipation, or the period before the child knew whether he or she had chosen the correct answer, and reward processing, or the period immediately after.

“We structured the game so that the kids would pick an answer, and then there would be a brief pause,” Stavropoulos said. “It was during that pause that the kids would begin to wonder, ‘Did I get it?’ and we could observe them getting excited; the more rewarding something is to a person, the more that anticipation builds.”

Each child played the game in two blocks. During the social block, children who chose the correct box saw a smiling face and kids who chose the wrong box saw a sad, frowning face. During the nonsocial block, meanwhile, the faces were scrambled and reformed in the shapes of arrows pointing up to denote correct answers and down to denote incorrect ones.

“After the kids saw whether they were right or wrong, we were then able to observe the post-stimulus reward-related activity,” Stavropoulos said of the process, which involved comparing participants’ neural oscillation patterns.

The findings reveal that the TD kids anticipated social awards — in this case, the pictures of faces — more strongly than kids with ASD.

In addition, not only did ASD children have less interest in social rewards compared to their TD peers, but within the ASD group, children with more severe ASD were anticipating the nonsocial rewards, or the arrows, the most.

During reward processing, or the period right after the children learned whether they had chosen the right or wrong box, the researchers observed more reward-related brain activity in TD children but more attention-related brain activity among ASD children. Stavropoulos suggests this may be related to feelings of sensory overload in kids with ASD.

Kids with more severe ASD also exhibited greater responsiveness to positive social feedback, which Stavropoulos said may indicate hyperactivity, or the state of being overwhelmed by “correct” social feedback that is often related to sensory over-responsivity.

Stavropoulos said the findings provide support for both the social motivation hypothesis and the overly intense world hypothesis.

“Kids with autism might not be as rewarded by social interactions as typically developing kids are, but that doesn’t mean their reward systems are entirely broken,” she said. “This research makes the case for developing clinical interventions that help children with autism better understand the reward value of other people — to slowly teach these kids that interacting with others can be rewarding.

“But, it is critical to do this while being sensitive to these kids’ sensory experiences,” she said. “We don’t want to overwhelm them, or make them feel sensory overload. It’s a delicate balance between making social interactions rewarding while being aware of how loudly we speak, how excited our voices sound, and how bright the lights are.”

Source: University of California- Riverside