Samantha Rosenthal Awarded NIH Grant to Study Effects of Smartphone Screen Time

College of Health & Wellness Associate Professor Samantha Rosenthal first studied the effects of technology on young adults as part of her Ph.D. dissertation. Now, with a grant for more than $300,000 from the National Institute of Health (NIH), she will dig deeper into those effects, focusing on the relationship between screen time and depressive symptoms among college students.

This significant grant provides funding for a 3-year study into a population that Rosenthal is professionally and personally vested in — young adults, including college students. "They have generally had the highest burden of mental health and behavioral health issues, and that sets the trajectory of their long-term mental health." 
Joining Rosenthal, principal investigator for the NIH-funded project, is Associate Professor and Department Chair Cara Sammartino Ph.D., and Associate Professor Jonathan Noel, Ph.D., as co-investigators.

Engaging Students in Research

Rosenthal is committed to providing and connecting research opportunities to her students. The NIH grant gives her the means to offer research internships to at least 12 undergraduate health science degree and public health degree students throughout the project's 3-year timeline. Through the pilot study for the NIH grant spearheaded by Rosenthal in 2019, she provided research internships for 3 undergraduate students.
"I think any undergraduate student who is interested in research should have a real research experience, and that is a big part of my mission … The students who did the pilot project were my interns. I usually take at least one intern every semester for course credit ... and have them work on important projects, whether it is for the state government or the Department of Health. We do so much work, and we do our own research, so there is always something students can do in terms of research and in terms of applied public health."

Students, Smartphones and Screen Time

The idea for using screen time as a tool for research occurred to Rosenthal a few years ago when she realized a screen time application for smartphones had launched. "I thought, wow, this is free data." 
That idea came to life through students' work for the pilot study, which was invaluable. Rosenthal described how students helped develop the questions and validated measures to include on the survey, discovered the best ways to obtain screen shots from phones, did a test run of the survey and extracted data. They also helped with the Institutional Review Board (IRB) proposal for the NIH grant. "That pilot study was critical for us to get the grant," she noted.

The students who will assist with the NIH-funded study will complete 16-week internships each fall and spring semester for 3 years starting Fall 2021. The additional in-depth data obtained should provide more insight into whether depressive symptoms may have already existed in some students and extensive smartphone use made their symptoms worse or was it the unhealthy use of smartphones that caused the depressive symptoms? It could also be a combination of these, says Rosenthal.

Samantha Rosenthal 

Provost Innovation and Accelerator Award

Rosenthal is also connecting students to research through a recently awarded JWU Provost Innovation and Accelerator Award. As principal investigator, Rosenthal will be joined by Professor Jennifer Swanberg, Ph.D., as co-investigator. The award is for their Health Equity Fellowship Program (HEFP), for which the primary purpose is providing paid research opportunities and training focused on health equity, to students. The $25,000 award, funded internally for 1 year, will go completely to student fellows for their work.
The role of health disparities, especially the impact of trauma and discrimination on the health of racial and ethnic minorities and sexual and gender minorities, will be researched for this program. A team of 2 graduate Occupational Therapy Doctorate fellows and 2 undergraduate fellows will gather data using online focus groups. "We are doing focus groups with the black population, the Asian population and the Hispanic population. And then within each group, we are doing focus groups of gay men, gay women, trans men and trans women across each of those three races," said Rosenthal.
The fellows' research will be varied but related topics. "Each student will carve out their questions that they will own, and it will all be part of this broader research project," explains Rosenthal. The graduate OTD fellows will continue using their research for their doctoral capstone projects and developing papers for publication.

Mentoring Students

Mentoring is just as crucial to JWU faculty as teaching is, and Rosenthal is a prime example of a committed, supportive role model helping students work towards their futures. "In our department, we are super connected with our students … they call us by our first names, will come into our offices to chat or tell us what is going on in their lives. It's awesome, and I do not think that happens at most places, or every place for sure," noted Rosenthal.
Faculty support of students does not end when they graduate. "Generally, there's a huge portion of our graduates we are still in touch with, whether it is facilitating their ability to get a job or research opportunity, or navigating the process of applying to graduate school … we stay very involved. We have these students for four years, and we develop relationships, so we get to see what they go on to do next, and they continue to reach out to us years later."
When all in-person classes were changed to being held online due to Covid, faculty support of students was critical. "When I saw students struggling or missing classes, I did outreach … Every time I connected with a student about their struggles, it felt like a success because I am keeping them engaged, and they know they are still a part of our community," said Rosenthal.

Watch Rosenthal talk about research for students, her NIH grant and screen time, below.


Connecting and Networking in Rhode Island's Health Community

Rosenthal came to Rhode Island for graduate school, never left, and does not intend to. In the state she now calls home with her partner and their 3 sons she has become highly involved in the local health care community. She serves as lead epidemiologist for the Rhode Island State Epidemiology & Outcomes Workgroup, a steering committee member of the Rhode Island IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence, and a member of the RI Department of Health Violence and Injury Prevention Program, among others.
She also works with harm reduction organizations, naming Open Doors as an example. "I am able to network and engage with those organizations, refer people to them, and reach out to them to find opportunities for students."
Rosenthal is the essential link between the students and organizations. "Students intern with me. Then I have them do work for other organizations or the state government." Some of the projects include opportunities for students to sharpen their writing skills. "There are reports for the state government that I have had Johnson & Wales interns co-author with me. These have been included on state government websites, as technical reports seen by providers throughout the state and for strategic planning for the Department of Behavioral Health Care and Developmental Disabilities in hospitals."
Engaging students with local organizations and the government is a win-win for all involved. "I bring them into my work because they are undergraduates and part of the work is the mentorship. They do not just come here with the skills needed. I have to mentor them and teach them as they learn. If they interacted directly with these organizations, they would not get that."

"Our students in the health science department represent the world; they are incredibly diverse."

Changing Healthcare

When asked what she thought are the most prevalent problems with today's health care, Rosenthal responded: "Diversifying the health care system and trying to make sure we get the best care to all people from all different backgrounds including immigrants and people who are undocumented because we care about health and we want to have a healthy society."
Other areas need attention, too, says Rosenthal. "We need to put a lot more emphasis on social determinants of health. Our health care system has been built in a more responsive way than preventive, and it has become clear that people's life experiences and social circumstances are some of the strongest predictors of health. We need to start addressing things like housing, financial stability, employment, education — these underlying factors that we know contribute so much to health. … We need to shift to thinking about building healthy communities as our best approach to public health." 

Rosenthal and JWU: A Good Match

It is fitting that Rosenthal brought her vision for equitable and inclusive health and education to Johnson & Wales. Two women founded the university before women even had the right to vote, and today JWU continuously strives to encourage and strengthen a diverse, inclusive environment and community, including students, faculty and staff.
"I like the fact that, at Johnson & Wales, our students in the health science department represent the world; they are incredibly diverse. We have such a huge portion of first-generation students, such a huge portion of racial and ethnic minority students … I see it as a great opportunity for me to train, mentor, motivate and inspire students from all backgrounds."