U-M pioneering a digital wellness program for youths


Sixth-grader Sera Bergman confesses she spends a significant amount of time watching “reels” — and enjoys it, like most kids her age. Once she starts scrolling through the short social media videos, stopping is challenging.

“When I am in the car, I think I will just watch a couple of YouTube shorts before I get somewhere,” said Sera, who attends Scarlett Middle School in Ann Arbor. “But then when I get out of the car, I’ll be like, ‘Just one more.’ It is super addictive. When creating games and social media apps, designers find ways to make them addicted to them.”

Addiction, cyberbullying, eating disorders, anxiety and other mental health issues caused by problematic digital practices and an increase in screen time are some of the themes of a new and unique University of Michigan interprofessional Peer-to-Peer Digital Wellness class. 

This semester, U-M students and scholars launched an interprofessional course in partnership with sixth-graders at Ann Arbor Public Schools to provide classroom and real-world engagement about digital wellness.

Photo of middle schoolers at a two-day digital wellness symposium at U-M’s North Quad
Middle school students engaged in a two-day symposium at U-M’s North Quad on Feb. 8 and 15 as part of the digital wellness program. (Photo by Niki Williams)

“Evidence suggests the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified mental health issues and shifted social engagement to digital platforms,” said Liz Kolb, clinical professor of education at the Marsal Family School of Education. “With an increasing reliance on screens as primary tools of learning, entertainment and socialization, there is a critical need to educate students about digital wellness.

“Enhancing digital wellness, encompassing online engagement activities and emotional experiences, is crucial for students’ emotional, intellectual and social well-being.”

The current digital wellness program evolved from the digital citizenship curriculum that Kolb designed. The curriculum she launched at Scarlett Middle School began with a focus on bullying, privacy and online safety. As the concerns of parents, teachers and scholars around the country have mounted, the new digital wellness program has shifted toward a broader conversation with kids: “What impact are these devices having on me?”

The program is a collaboration among the Marsal School, School of Information and School of Social Work. The U-M student mentors are undergraduate and graduate students from these schools taking a digital wellness course.

“Most education around digital device use for young people has focused on safety lectures and lists of ‘do’s and don’ts’ coming from adults and authority figures,” Kolb said. “These approaches do not often work at helping young people understand the impact of their device on their individual mental and physical health, and rarely cause young people to change habits.

“This course takes a different approach, giving young people — both college and middle school students — scientific information about what happens to our bodies when using screens, both the benefits and harms.”

Photo of middle schoolers work during a Digital Wellness class at Tappan Middle School.
Middle schoolers work during a Digital Wellness class at Tappan Middle School.
(Photo by Liz Kolb, Marsal Family School of Education(

This first class includes 52 sixth-graders from Scarlett, Tappan and Clague middle schools and 11 U-M students.

Besides getting internship credit for the class and seeing digital wellness as an area of interest after graduation, master’s student Wanting Qian, majoring in education studies, decided to take this course for its interdisciplinarity.

“This course is interdisciplinary and co-taught by the schools of Social Work, Education and Information, and I want to understand how these three aspects work together,” she said. “I also needed hands-on experience to put theory into practice.”

Qian’s studies are concentrated on design and technologies for learning across cultures and contexts, and she has no doubt that this experience will benefit her future career.

“First, the understanding of trauma-informed practice,” she said. “This is a concept and theory every teacher should be aware of and integrate into their teaching, considering students’ prior experiences and personalities, and being culturally responsive.

“Second, technology is rapidly developing in today’s world. In addition to investing in new technology, we must critically examine how it impacts our lives and what we should do when facing negative influences, especially for the younger generation.”

Muneer Khalid, an instructional consultant at the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, has been working closely with Kolb and her colleagues Kristin Fontichiaro, clinical professor of information, and Beth Sherman, clinical associate professor of social work, to develop and support the new class.

“This program is unique because you don’t have other sixth-graders or middle schools focusing on digital wellness. But it’s completely intertwined with middle schoolers and students, in general,” Khalid said. “We’re taught how to use some of these different platforms but not about the rippling effects it may have on our emotions or wellness.”

According to the researchers, it has been surprising to see what the sixth-graders and college students have in common regarding their device use and mental health struggles. They hope many schools throughout Michigan and the United States can replicate this digital wellness program.

“Students of all ages have been able to share stories, engage in conversation and debate solutions to their challenges,” Kolb said. “This near-peer approach seems to be leading to more long-term change of habit or, at the very least, an understanding of how individual feelings and emotions are impacted through screen time.

“This project has had a lot of joy, which feels different from the shame often associated with school-related talks/lectures on digital safety and citizenship. Engaging with digital devices in a healthy way should feel good.”

Balance has been one of the program’s big takeaways for Scarlett Middle School sixth-grader Oliver Thomas.

“I learned that technology isn’t a really bad thing,” he said. “It can be bad in some cases, so you just have to monitor it. We learned that social media, for example, can lead to higher anxiety and depression rates. So, I have to be smarter about how much I use social media, if at all. We should try to put it off for as long as we can. But if we decide to use it, we should be smart and put a time limit on it.”


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