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New IPR Research: December 2021

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Red Square in Moscow, Russia

This month's new research from IPR faculty examines how news consumption in Russia shapes belief in COVID-19 misinformation, mentor strategies in emerging fields, and measuring children's experiences in the classroom. It also explores whether mentors can help prevent suicide among young people, how economic development affects the environment, and how racism is like a virus. 

Politics, Institutions Public Policy

Russian Media and Belief in COVID-19 Misinformation

The COVID-19 pandemic has coincided with a global “infodemic,” or an overabundance of misinformation online during a pandemic, which can have serious consequences for individuals’ health behaviors. In International Journal of Public Opinion Research, communication and policy scholar and IPR associate Erik Nisbet and IPR associate research professor Olga Kamenchuk study the relationships between news media and digital media use and holding false beliefs about COVID-19 in Russia, an authoritarian country. During the first three months of the pandemic, Russian state-controlled media promoted misinformation that downplayed the pandemic and said the COVID-19 virus originated in a Chinese or American lab, although online news, blogs, and social media offered more credible information. The researchers looked at a survey of 1,600 Russians that asked how often respondents received information from news media and digital media and about their misinformed beliefs about COVID-19. They were also asked questions to evaluate the participants’ informational learned helplessness (ILH), a concept the authors developed to describe when people experience a prolonged difficult situation that they cannot alleviate and accept it as a given. The researchers find higher rates of ILH made people more likely to endorse false beliefs about COVID-19, regardless of whether they read state-controlled or digital media. The results highlight how people who feel helpless to discern the truth may be the most vulnerable to misinformation. The researchers note that belief in misinformation about the severity of COVID-19 could sway whether Russians get vaccinated and the belief that the virus originated in a U.S. lab could sour relations between the two countries. 

Performance Measurement & Rewards

Measuring Children’s Experiences in the Classroom

studentMost early childcare and education programs in the United States receive a performance rating from the Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS). Currently, it measures classroom-level factors, such as staff qualifications and child-to-teacher ratio, creating an average quality rating and reflecting the average child’s experience. The system is designed to assess, monitor, and improve programs, but in Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences, IPR developmental psychologist Terri Sabol proposes the system also needs to incorporate individual children’s experiences. This measure would include individual children’s own engagement, interactions, and relationships in the classroom to move beyond the assumption that all children have similar experiences within the same classroom. For example, children can have varying experiences based on their engagement, temperament, and demographic factors, such as gender and race, but Sabol says these experiences are rarely measured. While collecting data on individual children’s experiences is time-consuming and expensive, Sabol presents evidence on recent advances in technology and statistics that allow researchers to study variation in early childcare and education environments. For instance, new software helps researchers automatically code children’s engagements and removes the need for highly trained coders. Since the QRIS is controlled at the local level, Sabol suggests state and local administrators partner with researchers to test innovative approaches to measuring children’s experiences. Improving the QRIS can promote equity in education and ensure all children have an equal opportunity to thrive in early learning environments.

Mentor Strategies for Career Development in Emerging Fields

Career mentoring is essential for people trying to enter emerging fields, such as social entrepreneurship—where individuals and entrepreneurs develop and fund solutions to address social issues—which do not have established career pathways. In a study published in the 2021 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, mechanical engineer and IPR associate Elizabeth Gerber, learning scientist and IPR associate Matthew Easterday, Northwestern PhD student Gustavo Umbelino, and research assistant professor Daniel Rees Lewis investigate what strategies mentors use to advise novice social entrepreneurs on navigating their careers. The researchers interviewed nine mentors in the United States with at least five years of experience mentoring novice social entrepreneurs who were recent college graduates. The researchers find that mentors gave novice social entrepreneurs advice about career-related emotions, such as stress, and making decisions about the future of their careers. Mentors tried to address the stress of younger social entrepreneurs by telling them that there is no perfect job, and the mentors offered criteria that could help them evaluate different opportunities. These interviews show what strategies are used to advise novice social entrepreneurs trying to determine the direction of their careers, which could be a blueprint to build tools giving online mentorship to those who don’t have access to it. For example, the researchers suggest that the job search website Indeed could offer a chat function that gives expert-based advice to job seekers.

Child, Adolescent & Family Studies

Using School-Based Mentors to Reduce Suicide Risk Among Adolescents

teacher with studentBullying is one risk factor for suicide among adolescents, but as bullying shifts to online platforms, such as texting and social media, cyberbullying is also a common risk factor for suicidality—suicidal ideation, planning, and attempts. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death among adolescents, making it critical to identify what may reduce suicidality risks. In Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, IPR health researcher Lauren Beach, epidemiologist Gregory Phillips II, and their colleagues evaluate whether mentoring relationships mitigate a student’s chances of suicidality. The researchers used the 2017 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) and focused on five jurisdictions that asked students if they had at least one teacher or adult in their school they could talk to about problems. Students self-reported their experience with cyberbullying and suicidal ideation, planning, and attempts in the past 12 months. Of the 25,592 students in the sample, 87% reported having an adult they could talk with, and the researchers found mentoring relationships were associated with lower chances of suicidal ideation, planning, and attempts for both females and males. Having a mentor substantially decreased the odds of attempting suicide among males who were cyberbullied. Females who have a mentor have lower chances of suicidal ideation and attempts. These results suggest schools that help their students develop informal and formal mentoring relationships may prevent suicidality among students. 

Poverty, Race & Inequality

How Economic Development Affects the Environment

Reducing global poverty and addressing climate change and other environmental crises are among the most important challenges facing humanity today. In a working paper, IPR economist Seema Jayachandran reviews research on the ways economic development and the environment are intertwined. She highlights research examining how the environment is impacted by consumption changes when incomes increase, better access to capital, more secure property rights, improvements to technology and infrastructure, improved regulatory capacity, market competition, and slower population growth. For example, she points toenvironment research in Kenya and Ethiopia showing rising wages and cash transfers allow people to eat more meat-based diets, which requires more land use than diets based on grains, fruits, and vegetables. Better access to credit can provide individuals the ability to purchase more fuel-efficient household goods, such as energy-saving stoves in Uganda, on an installment plan, according to another study. Several studies in sub-Saharan Africa and South America have shown that more secure property rights may reduce deforestation because farmers feel that they have enough land for future agriculture production and are incentivized to invest in cultivating trees on their property.  Jayachandran concludes that environmental regulation is crucial to protect the environment and that economic development increases both the supply and demand for regulation. She also suggests areas for future research, including examining how governments can regulate more effectively and how public policy can direct economic growth to be more pro-environment. Jayachandran is Breen Family Professor of Economics.

Directions for Vaccinating Children Against Racism: Treating Racism as a Virus

During the COVID-19 pandemic, which disproportionately affected Black Americans, many around the United States watched the murder of George Floyd by a police officer, a racist experience that was not new for Black youth. In the Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology, pediatrician and IPR associate Nia Heard-Garris and her colleagues discuss how racism is a social virus analogous to infectious viruses such as the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Structural racism is embedded within our societal structures and unfairly advantages certain racial or ethnic groups over others, and this is a common lived experience of racially minoritized groups in the U.S. The researchers note that viruses, which need a host to survive, impact more susceptible people, and in the same way, people who seek dominance and rely on patterned behaviors are likely to be “host” for racist behaviors. The authors argue that racism is comparable to an endemic virus that continues to circulate because it is woven into the fabric of American society, including the medical profession. Viruses can be pandemic or endemic, and the authors point out that racism is endemic in American society. Racism can spread through harmful practices, like when parents reinforce racial hierarchies or promote mistrust of racial groups. These harmful practices can negatively impact both the physical and mental health of children. The authors argue that parents should socialize their children about race in healthy ways to acknowledge racism within society and reduce the spread of prejudice. They also suggest mental health professionals receive training programs to combat racism, which can support the wellbeing of children and adolescents.

Photo credits: Unsplash

Published: December 14, 2021.