Meryl Alper

Nobel Conference 58

MerylAlper

Meryl Alper

Associate Professor of Communication Studies, Northeastern University

Supporting Mental Health among Autistic Youth in the Digital Age

The impact of technology on young people’s mental health is complex. While devices, apps, and tools facilitate connection and identity experimentation, they can also exacerbate psychological, social, biological, and behavioral issues. The World Health Organization identifies media influence as a factor for the one in seven 10-to-19-year-olds with mental health conditions. Additionally, grouping all “young people” together as being equally adept with technology obscures the reality that social conditions, shaped by systems of discrimination and oppression, determine much of our ability to interact with media and technology.

Analyses of technology’s effects on children’s mental health often fail to take an intersectional perspective that addresses the ways in which aspects of identity like gender, ability, race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic class work together to uphold these systems. Meryl Alper’s work focuses explicitly on intersectionality as it affects technology use among young people with disabilities. In a forthcoming book, Alper explores how youth on the autism spectrum interact with technology in their daily lives. She draws on interviews with kids and their families to argue that experiences are less defined by their diagnosis and more affected by ways their disability intersects with these other aspects of identity.

Alper has quickly established herself as a preeminent scholar in fields of communication studies,
sociology, and disability studies, publishing with three books published or forthcoming since
earning her doctorate in 2015, all with MIT Press: Digital Youth with Disabilities; Giving
Voice: Mobile Communication, Disability, and Inequality; and Kids Across the Spectrums:
Growing Up Autistic in the Digital Age. Her books have been awarded honors from the
Association of American Publishers and the American Sociological Association. She translates
her work as a public intellectual through public commentary on technology and disability in
news outlets like The New York Times and EdTech Magazine and has served as a researcher,
consultant, and invited speaker with Sesame Workshop, PBS KIDS, Nickelodeon, Disney, and
Microsoft Research.

Alper is Associate Professor of Communication Studies at Northeastern University, where she is
a Faculty Scholar with the Northeastern University Institute for Health Equity and Social Justice
Research. She holds an MA and Ph.D. doctorate in communication from the University of
Southern California and a B.S. in communication studies and history from Northwestern
University.

Alper's talk: With more possibilities than ever for media and technology use any time and anywhere, young people’s online and offline worlds are shaping one another in complex ways, both for better and for worse. This is especially true among children and adolescents on the autism spectrum, who may discover unique opportunities for socializing, communicating, and expressing themselves through new media, and also encounter specific threats to their safety and privacy borne of the internet and mobile devices. These challenges can be compounded by heightened risks of anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and other co-occurring mental health conditions among autistic people. This talk focuses on the prospects of digital media such as social media apps, gaming websites, online video for positively and negatively affecting the mental wellbeing of autistic youth, with a particular emphasis on their identity, emotional, and social development. It draws on ethnographic research that centers their personal experiences and stories. Supporting mental health among young people on the autism spectrum requires parents, educators, clinicians, technologists, media makers, and government officials to look beyond a purely medical model of disability that focuses exclusively on one’s degree of support needs, and understand how additional factors—such as class, gender, sexuality, and racial/ethnic background—also intersect with the different forms of security and insecurity that autistic youth may feel while growing up in the digital age and in a post-COVID era.