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The Science Behind Social Media, Adolescents and Food Choices

Adam Kucharczuk

As he completed his junior year at the Fitzpatrick College of Nursing in May 2021, Adam Kucharczuk had three years of research learning behind him, with more to come. He has forged his scientific skills with an amalgam of mentorship and drive. This maturing scientist began in freshman year by asking Professor Elizabeth Dowdell, PhD, RN, FAAN, coordinator of undergraduate research, about Villanova’s Freshman Match program. She facilitated his partnership with Associate Professor Tracy Oliver, PhD, RDN, LDN, where Adam coded data on Dr. Oliver’s weight sensitivity training study among FCN students, pulling common terms into categories for further analysis.

Adam had started his college career at Villanova as a biology major, only for a couple days, before switching to nursing where he was “taken aback by nursing research as it can be applied to the real world.” That enthusiasm has only grown. With an interest in food and nutrition, Adam enjoyed Dr. Oliver’s nutrition class in sophomore year, and partnered with her again on a few other projects including one examining the perceptions associated with the word “healthy” among individuals living with food insecurity. That project also included fellow scientist Dr. Dowdell.

Supported by a summer grant from FCN’s Davis Family Undergraduate Student Research Fund, Adam, as a rising junior, completed a systematic review of the literature to investigate the role of social media’s food and beverage advertisements in influencing adolescents’ food choices. He thought that adolescents’ increased autonomy from their parents would make them more vulnerable to choosing less healthful foods. His conclusion? Adolescents are at a higher risk for adverse health effects from social media ads which can be amplified by celebrity or influencer marketing of unhealthy products. He encourages health care professionals working with this population and their families to screen for social media use and educate them about these potential negative health consequences. Adam has submitted his work for publication with Drs. Oliver and Dowdell and shared his science widely, presenting this past spring at FCN’s Annual Research Symposium and its Undergraduate Scholars Day, as well as the Annual Eastern Nursing Research Society (ENRS) virtual Scientific Sessions.

Using his Davis Scholar work as a foundation, in spring 2021, Adam completed an independent study to develop a qualitative research study to again look at food preferences during the COVID-19 pandemic and whether the influences were more prominent due to adolescents spending increased time on social media.  

Adam’s experience with the grant process buoyed his application and he was subsequently accepted as a Villanova Undergraduate Research Fellow (VURF) for summer 2021. His qualitative efforts continue, talking with parents and 6th grade students in focus groups in upstate Pennsylvania about food preferences in the pandemic and its connection to social media usage.

Additionally this summer, Adam is working as a nursing extern at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia on a GI and Endocrine unit and NICU. He will follow up with analysis and writing of his VURF study in the fall.

In terms of process, Adam’s goal is to “become more independent on a research study from start to finish.” As he is on the cusp of beginning his senior year in Nursing in fall 2021, Dr. Oliver marvels at Adam’s development, “He is a wonderful example of what a driven, motivated student is. He is ahead on most tasks, manages his time well, and I can see the research process and his learning evolving over the years.”  As his mentor, she notes the critical nature of good communication, and that the biggest impact of their relationship is that “Adam has shifted from a student helping a faculty researcher to an independent researcher.”  Mission accomplished.