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Robertson School launches Media+Health Lab

Dec 11, 2019

Posted in: News

By Timothy Cantrell, Capital News Service

Group photo of the Media and Health Lab The Media + Health Lab had its grand opening this Fall.


Nestled in a first-floor nook of the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture is a slender lab with a big vision.

The Media+Health Lab, run by Virginia Commonwealth University assistant professors Jeanine Guidry and Nicole O’Donnell, opened late in the fall semester but research is already underway. After months of transforming the room from cinder block beige, ordering furniture and designing a logo, the new research headquarters hosted an open house and then faculty got to work.  

Guidry and O’Donnell were  selected for a VCU Presidential Research Quest Fund award, as part of a collaborative grant proposal that include several other faculty members.

  "This is an outstanding recognition of Dr. Guidry, Dr. O'Donnell and their collaborators,” said Marcus Messner, interim Director of the Robertson School. “Their ground-breaking research on visual social media in health communication is making a great impact in this field."

Guidry and O’Donnell have run studies in the past that focused on suicide and depression related posts on Pinterest and Instagram.

For example, O’Donnell made fake Pinterest accounts to search for posts hashtagged”depression” and found the algorithms would eventually started promoting posts with an element of depression when she logged onto application.

O’Donnell doesn’t think social media makes people depressed.

A person participating the study in the Media and Health LabA participant takes part in the study.

“There’s a lot of research that shows it’s just another outlet, and I could be just as depressed without social media,” she said.“But it is one thing that is concerning that you could be promoted that content if you seek it out.”

Now Guidry and O’Donnell  are moving onto a new study after receiving a nearly $50,000 grant. The research project is called "#Doesanybodycare: Encourage suicide-related bystander behavior on Instagram." It will focus on identifying and supporting at-risk people through social media posts.The team will utilize interviews with test subjects and eye-tracking research to track behavior.

Guidry said eye-tracking technology is vital to this study because although they can’t get a feed directly to someone’s brain, they can get real data on how each test subject is examining the social media posts. Software measures facial expressions to produce raw data on subject reaction.

The project goals are threefold. Firstly, it will examine if college students recognize warning signs for suicide in social media. Secondly, it will examine what makes college students feel a responsibility to respond to warning signs. And lastly, it will see how college students respond to potentially suicidal peers and evaluate whether their response would be appropriate according to professional guidelines.

 “Ultimately, what I want is to make sure that we can help people who social media may be the only place where they can ask for help,” Guidry said. “If down the road we play a very small part in saving someone's life -- I’m good.”

 Last week researchers launched a pilot test, a test run to see how the equipment works and get the team familiar with the test format. The actual study will be conducted at the Health+Media lab in February and will have a test group size of about 75 people.