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Project seeks to help adults with TBI access social media

May. 7, 2020, 11:01 AM


by Kelsey Herbers

With more than $2 million in funding, researchers from Vanderbilt University Medical Center are developing software to make social media platforms more accessible for adults with cognitive disabilities.

The four-year project, conducted in collaboration with Bilge Mutlu, PhD, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Lyn Turkstra, PhD, CCC-SLP, at McMaster University, will build and test a Facebook plugin aimed at reducing barriers experienced by adults with traumatic brain injury (TBI) who want to use the site for social interaction and accessing information.

Researchers are developing software to make social media platforms more accessible for adults with traumatic brain injury.
Researchers are developing software to make social media platforms more accessible for adults with traumatic brain injury. (iStock image)

According to Melissa Duff, PhD, CCC-SLP, the study’s lead investigator at VUMC, many adults with TBI experience impairments in memory, attention, social perception and communication, making it difficult for them to integrate the multiple sources of information that appear in social newsfeeds or hard-to-interpret language, such as sarcasm.

“Online platforms have done a great job of reducing accessibility barriers for people with physical impairments, but there has been little accommodation for people with cognitive impairments,” said Duff, associate professor of Hearing and Speech Sciences at VUMC.

“We’re looking at different algorithms and ways of presenting information to help provide social interpretation or meaning or that could interpret mixed messages to help a person with brain injury decipher the social information.”

This may mean applying a “help” button next to each post that pulls keywords and color-codes them based on whether the message conveys positive or negative emotions. Researchers will also explore tools to help interpret the meaning of emojis.

Other barriers the team hopes to address include the overcrowding of the platform’s display, which includes advertisements, auto-play videos, a chat box showing online users and notifications. The plugin will experiment with “muting” the periphery of the main newsfeed to help keep the attention of users.

The team will also try linking multiple posts or comments that may be related in chronological order to make them easier to follow for people with memory impairments.

“Social media can help patients stay connected, access emotional support groups and combat loneliness, which we know is high in individuals with TBI and is also a risk factor for other health problems,” said Duff.

“The long-term goal of this work is to determine if we can reduce cognitive barriers to computer-mediated communication, and if so, whether that will help alleviate feelings of loneliness and increase feelings of connectedness, which could then have positive health benefits for people with brain injury who feel socially isolated.”

Researchers will invite approximately 50 adults with TBI to participate in the build and test phases, monitoring their use remotely and incorporating their input about what is helpful. Once the testing phase is complete, the team hopes to conduct a clinical trial to see if the plugin increases use of the platform among adults with TBI and if increased use impacts mental health outcomes.

The team also hopes the tool can expand to other platforms, including Instagram and email.

“This is obviously timely work. During the COVID-19 pandemic with social distancing requirements, individuals are finding alternative ways to stay in touch with the world and maintain contact with family, friends and social media sources. Those with TBI are no different in that regard, but they may face additional barriers when interpreting diverse sources of information,” said Anne Marie Tharpe, PhD, chair of the Department of Hearing and Speech Sciences and associate director of the Vanderbilt Bill Wilkerson Center.

“Combating social isolation is important for all of us, including those with cognitive impairments, and Melissa is at the forefront of solving this challenge.”

This research is supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (grant HD071089).

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