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Health communication researchers awarded NCAA grant

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Claire Wanzer

Amy Bleakley, professor of communication, and Claire Wanzer, a doctoral student in communication, were awarded the 2024 NCAA Innovations in Research and Practice grant. The award, which was given to just three research teams nationwide, recognizes projects that look to understand and improve student-athletes' psychosocial well-being and mental health. The duo's research will analyze the impact of social media on student-athletes, with the goal of developing data-driven digital well-being strategies.

Wanzer knows something about the pressures that student-athletes face, pressures that she said are often compounded by intense social media scrutiny. As an undergraduate, she was a basketball player at Niagara University until sustained injuries led to her medical retirement.

“I played before social media had the prominent role that it has today, before the NCAA's NIL ruling," said Wanzer, who earned her bachelor's degree in 2020. In July 2021, the NCAA approved a policy allowing college athletes in all three divisions to get paid for the use of their name, image and likeness (NIL).

“With this policy change, it opened the door for student-athletes to receive endorsements. All of a sudden there was this powerful incentive to use social media to basically to build a personal brand and to make money off of it," noted Wanzer.

After earning a master's in public relations from Virginia Tech, Wanzer said she came to UD because of its reputation in health communication. Bleakley directs UD's Center for Health Communication, which conducts research as well as promotes engagement with communities to improve health and well-being.

“Claire is all that an advisor can ask for in a student," notes Bleakley. “She has great instincts for research and is also very passionate about improving the lives of student-athletes. As a former student-athlete herself, she moves seamlessly in the world of college athletics, working to build partnerships with athletic departments like she has here at UD. “

Prior research has demonstration that problematic social media use by student-athletes is linked to worsened health and decreases in academic and athletic performance. Researchers have defined problematic social media use as a preoccupation and compulsion to use social media. However, Wanzer said that few studies have explored student-athletes' problematic social media use on their feelings of belongingness and relationship satisfaction, as well as team culture and social comparison.

The research team's research will work to understand these dimensions through a series of focus groups and surveys with student-athletes at UD as well as athletes from Binghamton University, Daemen University, Niagara University and West Chester University.

Wanzer said she was “amazed" to receive the highly competitive NCAA grant. This year, more than 140 proposals were submitted to the program, which is now in its 10th year. The panel that reviewed the proposals was composed of current student-athletes, academics, athletics administrators, an athletic trainer, a coach and a mental health clinician.

“You're so excited to get the grant, now the hard work is really about to begin because it's a very aggressive project," she said. Data collection will begin this summer and more than 700 participants will take part in the study.

Following data analysis, findings from the research will be used to create digital intervention guides, which will be accessible to the public and NCAA athletes, coaches and administrators.

So how can any of us – student-athlete or not – mitigate some of the the detrimental impacts of social media? While it's too soon for recommendations from the research, Wanzer noted that when she finds herself comparing herself to others online or feels worse after viewing something, she liberally mutes or blocks content. She also tracks her screen time and encourages others to, while acknowledging that can be a challenge since her research calls for her to be on social media frequently.​

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The award, which was given to just three research teams nationwide, recognizes projects that look to understand and improve student-athletes’ psychosocial well-being and mental health.
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6/17/2024
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Health communication researchers awarded NCAA grant