Von Rainer Busch
18 Apr 2023
She’s an epidemiologist, while he’s a philosopher. Both are doing doctorates, both are interested in the interactions between digitization and health, and both live in Bremen. And yet, there is a good chance the two would never have met if it hadn’t been for the Early Career Research Academy (ECRA). Referring to the ECRA, Elida Sina says: “It helps me improve my skills as a scientist.” Hans-Henrik Dassow adds: “On my own, I wouldn’t have thought of pursuing individual projects and publishing them.”
“The more children and young people use social media, the more sugar and fast food they consume.”
Ms. Sina’s dissertation topic is highly topical and particularly relevant for parents. The 29-year-old is investigating the long-term impact of TikTok, Instagram, YouTube, and other social media channels on the health of children and adolescents. For instance, she is looking into how social media influences dietary and taste preferences, which can lead to metabolic syndrome – a dangerous quartet of obesity, high blood pressure, elevated blood sugar levels, and high triglyceride levels.
It is widely believed that the excessive use of digital and social media can lead to such conditions. But this has yet to be scientifically proven. The work of Ms. Sina, who is doing her doctorate at BIPS, the Leibniz Institute for Prevention Research and Epidemiology in Bremen, is the first of its kind. She is also researching a key component: the importance of advertising, which has been demonstrated to influence the eating habits of children and adolescents.
While advertising for alcohol and cigarettes is regulated on many social media channels, the food industry is allowed to advertise unhealthy foods without limits: sugary products in solid and liquid form, greasy and salty snacks – often using dubious methods by harnessing the power of influencers. “They have a particularly strong impact on young people,” observes Ms. Sina. Her findings leave no doubt: “The more children and young people use social media, the more sugar and fast food they consume,” Ms. Sina says. With this, there is a greater risk of getting sick. “We urgently need stronger regulation,” she concludes.
Hans-Henrik Dassow is also breaking new ground with his research, except that it is less tangible, but more fundamental in nature. “My topic is the ethical implications of health apps,” says the 31-year-old. On the one hand, exercise, nutrition, and menstrual apps can encourage a healthier lifestyle. On the other hand, the data reveals a lot about its users and could be misused. “There comes a point where the positive aspects of digital intervention can have the opposite effect,” says Mr. Dassow, who is a research assistant at the University of Bremen’s Institute of Philosophy.
Usage therefore involves a trade-off between the benefits and the risks. So, which criteria should be taken into consideration? Mr. Dassow takes the example of six different health apps to show how data is collected and used, and identify which gaps exist. “My goal is to develop ethical guidelines and translate previous principles of medical ethics into ones that are suitable for the digital age of health.”
Digitization is having an ever-greater impact on the health of individuals and public health care. But how can it be used to benefit everyone? To improve prevention, to prevent illness, to prolong life? How can science process the vast amounts of data for everyone’s best interests, develop new concepts, and secure access to digital developments, regardless of the person’s education, background, and social situation? And how can privacy and data security be safeguarded?
“These were some of our initial considerations when founding the Leibniz ScienceCampus Digital Public Health,” explains Professor Hajo Zeeb, who focuses on prevention and evaluation as the professor of Epidemiology at the University of Bremen. Professor Zeeb is also the spokesperson for the LWC and head of the Prevention and Evaluation department at BIPS. The research institute is one of three member institutions of the U Bremen Research Alliance that launched the LWC in 2019. The trio is completed by the University of Bremen and the Fraunhofer Institute for Digital Medicine MEVIS.
“We find it important to support junior researchers and give them development prospects.”
“The LWC has created a network of new connections where everyone contributes their own specific skills, further increasing the visibility and attractiveness of health research in Bremen,” says Professor Zeeb. There is 3.6 million euros of funding available, distributed over four years. The state of Bremen, the Leibniz Association, and BIPS itself each contribute a third of the funding. The money is used to fund research projects (see box: “Research at the LWC”) as well as the ECRA, which is an important part of the LWC. “We find it important to support junior researchers and give them development prospects,” says Professor Zeeb. “This has developed very dynamically.”
The ECRA is not a fixed location, but a network of doctoral candidates and postdocs from a wide range of disciplines who can organize events, workshops, and guest lectures as well as attend conferences on their own initiative and with their own funds. “There is no fixed, predetermined structure. We are grown-up academics with our own ideas that we try to implement within the framework of the ECRA,” says Mr. Dassow, describing the principle. This also includes very tangible topics from which everyone benefits, such as workshops for data analysis or for writing funding applications – a vital skill, especially for young academics. “I found these events very helpful,” says Ms. Sina.
Once a month, the group exchanges ideas via Zoom. Participants include IT specialists, lawyers, health scientists, and economists. It is this diversity that everyone particularly appreciates. “Interdisciplinary work is not always easy,” says Mr. Dassow. “We pursue different methods and have contrasting ideas about academic research. But the exchange is very valuable – we have developed a common language. Thanks to the interdisciplinary work, I even have a better understanding of my own project.”
And joint projects emerge. Mr. Dassow, together with an ECRA colleague, has published a paper on “dark patterns” – manipulative designs or processes that are intended to persuade users of a website or app to click on a particular setting and thus to consent, for example by highlighting them in color. Another participant and two partners founded a start-up that provides digital solutions for expectant mothers.
Thirty young scientists form the core of the ECRA, with another 30 to 40 joining from time to time. Professor Zeeb speaks of a successful model, which is also attracting increasing interest outside Bremen and is further bolstering health research in the city. “It is important to convey to the participants that they play an important role in the success of joint research projects and that they are not just contributors,” says Professor Zeeb. And, of course, they should be given a chance to work in academia if possible.
Elida Sina has that chance – she will continue her research at BIPS. The continued existence of the LWC and thus the ECRA is assured until at least the beginning of 2024, when the funding comes to an end. Professor Zeeb is in favor of extending it for another four years. And Hans-Henrik Dassow? His future is open, as he started his doctorate later than Ms. Sina and could benefit from an extension of the funding.
Research at the LWC
Technical innovations are usually the drivers of new technologies in the health-care sector, rather than the needs of users. This is precisely what the Leibniz ScienceCampus Digital Public Health (LWC) focuses on in four research areas. They address the development of principles for assessing digital technologies, how new technologies can support individual and community health needs, their evaluation, and opportunities for participation and knowledge transfer. Each of these four areas is led by experienced academics, and the teams are made up of interdisciplinary staff. Three member institutions of the U Bremen Research Alliance are involved in the LWC: the University of Bremen, the Leibniz Institute for Prevention Research and Epidemiology – BIPS, and the Fraunhofer Institute for Digital Medicine MEVIS.