February 17, 2021 - Podcast

Episode 92—HOPE, and social media

Racial injustice is a longstanding concern in the United States. But programs like HOPE Mentoring are working to change that. HOPE, which stands for Helping Offenders Prosper through Employment, provides weekly one-on-one mentoring to incarcerated youth that focuses on developing employment skills. Co-directed by IU Professor Theresa Ochoa, the program also focuses on reaching youth who have faced racial prejudice and other challenges. Ochoa says at the school level, youth of color are discriminated against as indicated by the disproportionate rates of suspensions, expulsions from school and the alarming reliance on incarceration when youth of color engage in illegal behavior. Ochoa says the COVID-19 pandemic has only compounded the negative effects on youth when they return home after incarceration. HOPE is committed to developing a better understanding of this dual-burden on youth, and more importantly, to finding ways to change these negative effects, Ochoa says. Niki Weller, also an IU professor and co-director of HOPE, says mentoring is a critical support step for the youth. HOPE program directors note that incarcerated youth are exceptionally isolated during this pandemic without visits from their family members or mentors, which can lead to depression and anxiety for an already at-risk population. Additionally, the overall weakened economy and diminished job availability associated with the pandemic increases the vulnerability of incarcerated youth because there are fewer available jobs, youth are at greater risk of contracting the virus when they use public transportation, and they are returning to a community with deficient youth-focused social services. Among those challenges, HOPE works to provide unconditional and sustained support to each youth so they can develop the skills they need for the workplace.

In other news, social media plays a powerful tool in our society, allowing us to communicate with people quickly. But researchers at Indiana University have found the language used on social media platforms may be implicated in depression. The study, led by Informatics Professor Johan Bollen, found that social media users who had received a clinical diagnosis of depression and posted about the diagnosis on Twitter tended to exhibit higher levels of cognitive distortions. Cognitive distortions are patterns of thought that are maladaptive, overly negative, and unrealistic, and that can have a negative effect on someone’s mood and motivation. Researchers studied two cohorts of Twitter users—individuals with depression and a randomly selected group—and compared the prevalence of cognitive distortions in their language. Bollen says the group of individuals with depression on Twitter expressed much higher levels of some types of cognitive distortions than the random sample. The effect was very significant, indicating that the language of individuals that suffer from depression can be quite negatively distorted, he says. Bollen says the study is a first step toward a better understanding of how online language interacts with depression and how this interaction shapes our personal and societal well-being.