The MaDLab (Media and Development Lab), directed by Dr. Kristen Harrison, is a collaborative research partnership between faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates. The MaDLab aims to understand the interaction between youth and media and the health outcomes and correlates of this interaction. Although it has become passé to speak of “media effects” on presumably passive children because children are in fact co-creators of their media experiences, MaDLab members are primarily interested in outcomes of a youth spent surrounded by media messages and in constant engagement with media devices.

The MaDLab started when Professor Harrison moved from the University of Illinois to the University of Michigan. At Illinois she co-founded the Illinois STRONG Kids Program in 2007, and extended it in 2011 at UM with her satellite project, Michigan STRONG Kids. STRONG Kids is a transdisciplinary examination of family and community predictors of early childhood obesity, with funding from the Illinois Council for Food and Agriculture Research, the Illinois Department of Human Services, the USDA, and the University of Michigan College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. The MaDLab works with with investigators from Illinois and Michigan in the fields of communication, human and community development, food science and human nutrition, economics, kinesiology and community health, social work, medicine, and psychology. In 2012, Professor Harrison joined UM’s Momentum Center as a key investigator studying family predictors of infant and early childhood obesity. She is lead creator of the 6-Cs model, an ecological cell-to-culture theoretical model designed to help map multi-level influences on public health challenges (specifically childhood obesity) over a child’s developmental trajectory.

The MaDLab’s first project at UM focused on understanding media and marketing influences on child dietary intake and preschoolers’ perceptions of healthy meals using a novel child healthy-meal schema measure called the Placemat Protocol. This measure uses lifelike food models in a pretend-play paradigm to capture preschoolers’ understanding of “healthy eating” before they can articulate it verbally. MaDLab members interviewed preschool children one-on-one and helped them construct pretend meals on a plate on a giant placemat covered with food models. When kids were allowed to construct two pretend meals, one of their favorite foods and one of healthy foods, we found that their “healthy meals” really were healthier than their “favorite meals,” with less fat and sugar and more fiber. Even though these children were not able to articulate verbally what makes a meal healthy, their selections indicated an early awareness of healthy eating.

Currently, the MaDLab is developing a theory of sensory curation, which extends research on media uses and gratifications, sensation seeking, mood management, media dependence, and media’s role in structuring family space and time. Sensory curation theory departs from these approaches by conceptualizing media as sources of multichannel sensory input—audio, visual, tactile, proprioceptive, vestibular, and so on—that people can use to create virtual environments with a comfortable balance of input across multiple sensory conduits. For some, the environment-within-environment created by media devices may be more comfortable than the built environment or even the natural environment, thus creating attachments to media devices and environments that can lead to interpersonal tension with friends and family members whose preferences differ. Media curation is a process involving both selection and rejection. Avid curators are “picky” when it comes to their media preferences, both selecting and rejecting specific sensory experiences with media. The lab has found that parents and children who are low in curation report very low levels of media conflict; in contrast, pairs who are high in curation report very high levels of conflict. The lab hopes to use this line of research to help families experiencing high media conflict (mostly due to a child’s media attachments) understand the sensory gratifications of these attachments and explore alternatives.

MaDLab Members

Members of the MaDLab lead their own research projects relevant to youth and media, diversifying the subject matter covered by the MaDLab. Key lab members are profiled below:

Mericarmen Peralta was the first coordinator of the MaDLab, where she oversaw the STRONG Kids study. Dr. Peralta has coauthored several articles with Professor Harrison and is now finishing a Ph.D. in public health at Loma Linda University.

Jessica Moorman is a dissertating doctoral student whose research examines media and technology in the lives of Black women, specifically in relation to their sexual health and relational decision-making. She is quickly becoming a leading scholar in the study of BORM (Black-oriented relationship media) and the way this genre is taken up (and resisted) by Black heterosexual women in the Detroit area.

Amelia Couture is a third-year doctoral student whose research examines the relationship between empowerment and objectification as outcomes of exposure to contemporary media, especially so-called “empowering” advertising. Amelia’s work positions her to be a leader in the study of empowerment communication, discovering ways that media can be used to empower girls and women without simultaneously objectifying them.

Halie Wenhold is a third-year doctoral student studying the implications of parasocial relationships between late adolescents and their favorite media figures for future career and life aspirations. Halie’s groundbreaking work documents the changing definition of journalism among Millennials, who merge traditional fourth-estate journalism with fifth-estate entertainment, naming celebrities like Kim Kardashian and Ellen DeGeneres as “news personalities.”

Lia Vallina and Clair Duckworth are UM undergraduates attending lab meetings and actively conducting on-the-ground research. Clair is a close collaborator on Amelia Couture’s research on empowerment advertising, and Lia is a key intellectual contributor and coauthor on the lab’s research on sensory curation.