Scholars Cohort

Current Scholars

Maya Hernandez profile (Scholar Feature)

By Mary Lowry

We’ve all heard about possible negative impacts of social media on youth. But because social media is clearly here to stay, UC Irvine PhD student Maya Hernandez is dedicated to giving young people the tools to make it a more helpful space. She researches the diverse impacts of social technologies on adolescents and their mental wellbeing.  Hernandez, who is currently working on her dissertation in the Social Ecology Core Program in the School of Social Ecology, uses big data sets (such as the Adolescent Cognitive Brain Development (ABCD) study, which is a ten-year long, ongoing, longitudinal study by the National Institutes of Health that’s open access) to look at ways that social group differentials, such as race-ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and age, affect youth experiences with social media and other similar technologies. “I’m interested in finding ways that youth from diverse backgrounds can use social media to empower themselves and improve their mental health and development,” Hernandez said.

Along with her quantitative approaches, Hernandez is also exploring a more qualitative angle to her inquiry and analysis. She believes it’s critical to include youth voices in the process of research. “This is particularly relevant given that social media changes very rapidly,” Hernandez said. “As researchers, we want to know the exact experiences that youth are having—in real time. We find out that information by partnering with youth themselves.” 

After conducting participatory action research with a group of Latinx adolescents, Hernandez became convinced that the key to shifting young people’s experience on social media is providing them with education and knowledge. Back-end developers create algorithms to make educated guesses about the kind of content that each user wants to see. But social media platforms don’t provide tools that explain this to new users. “Young people shared that there was no resource they could rely on in terms of learning about social media. What do you see on social media? How do you change what you see on social media?” It wasn’t easy for young users to find answers to these questions. 

Hernandez has a call to action for people working in the social media industry: Keep young users in mind as you develop these technologies. “One thing we heard from that small group [of Latinx adolescents] was that they really wish there were more official educational pieces built into these social media platforms they can access when they first start so they can learn how to tailor content to what they want to see and to things that’ll make them feel good rather than bad.” A teen girl interested in rocket science and beagles, for instance, can ensure she sees lots of related content on social media, instead of content that makes her feel socially “less than” or left out.

Hernandez plans to take research from the field and use it to create a supportive ecosystem, not only for youth, but also for their major stakeholders including parents, schools, and the industry itself. “I want to find out how to apply the amazing work that’s already being done in academic spaces and translate it into practice to promote more positive youth experiences on social media,” she said. 

Collaborative and community-based partnership research is important to Hernandez, who volunteers with nonprofits that reflect her biracial, bi-ethnic identity. She’s the chair of the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival, a nonprofit organization meant to empower women in leadership and foster cultural preservation within the Japanese-American community. “We do a lot of training for young women leaders moving forward in the community,” she said. She’s also involved with the Go For Broke National Education Center in downtown Los Angeles where she’s part of a committee of young Japanese-Americans who explore their community’s history of incarceration during World War II and the ways that’s affected subsequent generations. “My work with both of those organizations ties into the idea of social media narratives,” she said. “How do we preserve our history as the younger generation? And how do we engage and dismantle some of the stigma of mental health and the stigma of talking about history even within our own community? I feel like I leverage a lot of my skills from research and community-based partnerships in those positions as well.”

Past Scholars