The Health Habits of College Freshman: A Q&A with Sean Young, PhD

1. You’re conducting a research study to determine whether social media can be used to measure and predict health and academic performance among UCLA students 18 to 20 years old. Has this sort of study been done in the past with freshman students?    

To our knowledge, no study like this has ever been done. We’ve also given students wearable fitness and sleep tracking bands to evaluate their sleep and physical activity. A few researchers have published studies that monitored students with wearable trackers, but they did not include a social media component in the their research. We’re pretty excited about the innovation of this study and love coming up with creative new ideas for research.

2. One of your goals is to assess the relationship between writing about behaviors on social media platforms and activity/sleep patterns. What is the one area you expect the students to focus on the most in their social media posts? I would expect both schoolwork and personal relationships to be popular, but are you looking for the study to inspire other types of discussion?

This is exploratory. We definitely have some hypotheses of what students will be talking about and how it may affect their health and academic performance, but overall we’re looking at this study to give us some insights we can use in the future to build models to predict and improve student health and well-being. I think the topics they discuss is perhaps the less interesting question. As you mentioned, they’ll probably be most likely to talk about their schoolwork, job, friends, and hobbies. The more interesting question is how they’ll communicate about these things, what emotions they’ll express, whether we’ll be able to detect these emotions, and whether we can see and predict how they develop relationships over time purely by looking at their public social media data.

3. Since this study involves posting to social media sites, do you worry about the confidentiality of your participants? Also, you require “active postings” to social media sites. What exactly does that mean?

Because this is a pilot study, we need to gather a lot of data. In order to participate, we make sure students are Twitter users who are actively posting so that we can gather data from them. We’re not worried about confidentiality issues because people can change their Twitter settings. In most cases, people choose to have their Twitter handles public so that others can discover and follow them. That means that following someone on Twitter is like overhearing someone talking on the street. It’s all public information. If people don’t want to share something, they don’t have to, or they can go to a private area to share it. Our studies have found that people are growing increasingly comfortable with this concept.

4. With the release of the Apple Watch and other high-end fitness trackers, wristwatches have seen somewhat of a resurgence. However, some audiences still avoid wearables like the plague. Have any of your participants expressed discomfort or other issues with wearables during your studies?

I think it’s strong to say they’ve avoided wearables like the plague. I think they’ve avoided them like they avoided calculator watches, as I’ve compared them to in a previous post, because it’s still unclear whether they’re cool gadgets or whether they can impact people’s lives. The people who participate in our studies tend to be excited about our research and wearing the devices is a big reason why they want to participate. We’ve gotten a lot of athletes who signed up to participate, and many of them have reported back that the devices are helping them track their workouts. I think the next step or iteration is whether and how devices can help people who aren’t already doing things like exercising every day. In a previous post, I gave some examples of how wearables can become more effective at achieving this goal and leading to version 2.0.

5. How do you see your research helping improve the health habits of the first-year university students? And do you see any beneficial effects continuing later into life for these students?

Freshman students undergo a huge change in their lives when they start school. They move away from home, have to make new friends, are exposed to a lot of new experiences, and have to perform well academically compared to a smart group of peers. It can be a very stressful experience. It can lead to academic issues, mental health problems, or even suicide. Typically, it takes a while for university administrators to learn about students having these issues. Sometimes they don’t find out at all. The studies we’re conducting are aimed at developing tools that analyze data from technologies that students are already using in their daily lives, and use those data to predict and improve student health, well-being, and academic performance. We have the support of the university administration and if this approach shows promise, we hope to implement it more widely to help students better adjust to the transition from high school to college.

Sean Young PhD

UCLA Center for Digital Behavior, Medical Plaza, Los Angeles, CA, 90024, United States

Sean Young, PhD, MS is the Executive Director of the UCLA Center for Digital Behavior. I'm a scientist, innovator, and UCLA medical school professor. I study the science behind human digital behavior (see for more info about this field of research).I also assemble technology teams and solutions to improve UCLA Family Medicine patient care. For more info or to contact me: