College of Education and Human Development

Family Social Science

UMN professor employs big data and machine learning to develop new knowledge about tech, youth and families

Xiaoran Sun

“Big Data” – its role in tracking diseases, conducting financial analyses, and performing climate modeling are widely known, however Xiaoran Sun, an assistant professor in Family Social Science, is among a cadre of social scientists who want to mine big data in service of families and youth.

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Sun has been leading a project in collaboration with the Stanford Human Screenome Project, a “data collection and computational framework that includes precise recording and mapping of fragmented digital lives,” to study how teenagers and parents use smartphones, and how their smartphone behaviors impact their well-being. Recently, she published a research study examining the link between the age that a child received their first phone and their mental well-being in Child Development, the journal of the Society for Research in Child Development.

The research team followed a group of over 250 low-income Latino children in Northern California over five years. Non-white and low-income families are a segment of the population for which there is little research focusing on technology acquisition.

The good news for parents? There was no link to adverse effects depending upon when a child received their first phone. Researchers reported the average age at which children received their first phone was 11.6 years old and rose steeply between 10.7 and 12.5 years of age, a period during which half of the children acquired the technology.

“We found that whether or not the children in the study had a mobile phone, or when they had their first mobile phone, did not appear to be linked significantly to their depressive symptoms, sleep outcomes, or academic performance,” said Sun. “There doesn’t seem to evidence supporting a golden rule about waiting until eighth grade or a certain age.”

According to the researchers, the results suggested that each family timed the decision to what they thought was best for their child. Neither early or delayed acquisition had a negative impact on the child’s well-being.

“Parents should feel confident in their knowledge of their child and do what they believe is best for them,” says Sun.

Next steps

In her current research, Sun continues to use the data collected to understand more deeply how teenagers use smartphones and the impacts on their well-being. She was awarded a University of Minnesota Grants-in-Aid of Research, Artistry and Scholarship for her project, “Examining Teenagers’ Overnight Smartphone Use and Its Implications for Well-being with High Intensity Smartphone Data.”

Her big dataset includes objective, high-intensity (i.e., every five seconds) observations of teenagers’ smartphone use across six months and bi-weekly survey data on teenagers’ well-being outcomes.

Overall, Sun uses innovative statistical and computational methods to understand family dynamics and youth well-being across the lifespan. Her research leverages a variety of data types, including multi-member family panel data, national longitudinal databases, and high-intensity digital data to understand the ways family systems and processes shape achievements and well-being during adolescence and young adulthood.