Associate Professor in Digital Culture
Dual affiliation at imec-mict-UGent, department of Communication Sciences at Ghent University (Belgium) and the department of Cognition and Communication at Tilburg University (the Netherlands).
What are you currently working on?
Most of my time goes to the DISCONNECT project, in which we examine digital wellbeing through a dynamic systems lens, exploring how people’s experiences with 24/7 connectivity arise out of a complex interplay between individual characteristics, technological features and situational circumstances. I also work on two projects that explore the heterogeneity in mobile youth culture: A first project, conducted with Tom De Leyn and Ralf De Wolf (UGent), investigates the intersection between mobile media, youth culture and privacy among ethnic minority youths in Belgium. A second project, with Euriahs Togar (U of Monrovia, Liberia) and Marjolijn Antheunis (Tilburg U, the Netherlands), explores the mobile youth culture of young Liberians. I study the effects of parental smartphone use on outcomes such as parental responsiveness, family communication and child development with several colleagues at UGent and abroad, including Floor Denecker, Koen Ponnet and Lieven De Marez (UGent), Marion Van den Heuvel (Tilburg U), and Monika Abels (Arctic U of Norway).
What has been your most memorable project so far, and why?
The two projects in which we covertly observed phone use in public settings. In one project we observed students in student dining halls, in the other project we observed parents and their young children in consultation rooms and playgrounds. It was fascinating to experience how phone use manifests itself on the ground. These observational studies taught me that digital media use is highly complex behavior: Its effects are therefore difficult to capture with overly reductionist models.
Vanden Abeele, M. M. P., Hendrickson, A. T., Pollmann, M. M., & Ling, R. (2019). Phubbing behavior in conversations and its relation to perceived conversation intimacy and distraction: An exploratory observation study. Computers in Human Behavior, 100, 35-47. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chb.2019.06.004
Vanden Abeele, M. M. P., Abels, M., & Hendrickson, A. T. (2020). Are parents less responsive to young children when they are on their phones? A systematic naturalistic observation study. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 23(6), 363-370. https://doi.org/10.1089/cyber.2019.0472
Which achievement are you most proud of, and why?
Research-wise I am most proud of a single-authored article on digital wellbeing that I published in Communication Theory in 2020. The article forms the theoretical backbone of the DISCONNECT project, which received funding from the European Research Council. A previous version of the article was also awarded at the ICA conference in 2020. This set of accomplishments were a dream come true.
Vanden Abeele, M. M. P. (OnlineFirst, 2020). Digital Wellbeing as a Dynamic Construct. Communication Theory. https://doi.org/10.1093/ct/qtaa024
What is an important question from parents and practitioners that we as academics cannot provide a good answer to yet?
An increasing number of studies indicates that the association between digital media use and the health and well-being of children and adolescents is negligible. Yet these observations often do not match with people’s lived experiences. We currently fail to explain this discrepancy. I see the shift towards person-specific modelling, for instance as currently being employed in the AweSOme project of Patti Valkenburg and colleagues at the U of Amsterdam, as an important step forward in finding a way out of this conundrum.
What would be your work motto?
Research = me-search.
Anecdotal experience or personal fascination often inspires me in my scientific inquiry. I turned 20 in 2000, and witnessed first-hand how being connected anytime and anywhere profoundly altered how I lived, worked and played. Yet, as Rich Ling noted, we often take mobile connectivity for granted, only noticing how central it is to our lives when our phone battery dies or our connection fails. As media scholars, I see it as our role to lift the veil over the various social implications of this ever-present connectivity.
Which of your publications is your favorite, and why?
In relation to children, adolescents and media, I am most proud of a theoretical article that I wrote about Mobile Youth Culture. This article represents the theoretical framework that I developed for my dissertation. It looks at teenagers’ mobile (and by extension digital) media use through a socio-cultural lens. I am super happy that this framework did not get buried into the digital graveyard together with my dissertation, but got to see the daylight.
In terms of empirical work, I am most proud of the observational study that I performed together with Monika Abels and Drew Hendrickson in which we examine the effects of parental smartphone use on responsiveness towards small children. Using a systematic observation method, we found that the odds of parents responding to their child’s bid for attention were five times lower when they were using a phone than when not using one – which is a huge effects size in the context of media effects research. To counter moral panic thinking, however, I should add that when parents were absorbed in other activities (reading, eating) their responsiveness also decreased significantly.
Vanden Abeele, M. M. (2016). Mobile youth culture: A conceptual development. Mobile Media & Communication, 4(1), 85-101. https://doi.org/10.1177/2050157915601455
Vanden Abeele, M. M., Abels, M., & Hendrickson, A. T. (2020). Are parents less responsive to young children when they are on their phones? A systematic naturalistic observation study. Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 23(6), 363-370. https://doi.org/10.1089/cyber.2019.0472
If you had unlimited resources, what kind of project would you want to do and why?
The DISCONNECT project is funded with an extremely generous ERC Starting Grant. Hence, I currently have all the resources available that I need to set up and conduct my dream project. I am incredibly grateful to the European Research Council (and all the reviewers involved) for giving me this opportunity!
If I had even more resources, however, I would love to start a ‘life span’ study, that tracks the media uses and effects among different age cohorts for at least 50 years. Previous CAMmers, including Ruth Wendt last month, have voiced the same wish for longer-term longitudinal projects. Perhaps we should join forces on this project…
If you had to give one piece of advice to young CAM scholars, what would it be?
My advice would be to seek balance between developing the depth and the breadth of your expertise. Building expertise on one niche area or topic is highly relevant as a deep understanding of the research in that area might help to generate scientific advancements that really push the field forward. But I think it is wise to also develop 1-2 alternate research lines, that are ideally related but also different enough to establish some foot on the ground in a different space and network.
Who would you like to put in the spotlight next, and why?
Bieke Zaman! Bieke is an incredibly talented CAM scholar. Her background in human-computer interaction research makes her a key expert in how to involve children and adolescents in research activities. Her research helps understand the risks and challenges that digital environments hold for children, young people and families, and offers guidelines for how participatory research activities during the technology design, development and implementation phase can mitigate them. Bieke recently founded the KULeuven Digital Society Institute, and is the vice-Chair of the Children, Youth and Media Section of ECREA (the European Communication Research and Education Association).