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Assessing the Associations Between Negative News Exposure and Attentional Bias to Food and Alcohol Cues: An Eye Tracking Investigation on a Smartphone Platform

Funding Source

National Institute on Drug Abuse – Center for Technology and Behavioral Health Pilot Core

Project Period

February 2023 - February 2024

Principal Investigator

John Brand, PhD (Co-PI); Catherine Stanger, PhD (Co-PI)

Other Project Staff

Diane Gilbert-Diamond, ScD (Co-I); Joy Gabrielli, PhD (Consultant); Research Assistants (Delaina Carlson and Grace Ballarino)

Project Summary

The at-risk college population presents an opportunity to combat obesity and problematic drinking behaviors. Almost 1 in every 3 college-aged Americans now have obesity, with a similar percentage reporting problematic drinking behavior in their first year. Literature supports an association between smartphone use with obesogenic eating and problematic alcohol use among college students. Interventions are limited, though, perhaps because the pathway from problematic smartphone use to obesogenic behaviors and problematic alcohol use is not well-known. Novel digital interventions that target problematic smartphone use are needed. To develop novel interventions, it is first necessary to identify modifiable mechanisms on the path from smartphone use to problematic alcohol use and obesogenic behaviors. The present work investigates how the increased exposure to negative news via social media shown in conjunction with alcohol and food ads contributes to problematic drinking and obesogenic behaviors among college students.

A prominent, yet underexplored risk factor that may contribute to problematic eating and drinking is the rapid rise in negative news media exposure via social media. Social media is now the predominate source through which college students receive their news, the majority of which is sensationalized with graphic depictions of current events (e.g., Ukraine invasion and social unrest). Moreover, social media news feeds often embed advertisements, many of which promote the consumption of highly palatable foods and alcohol targeted to college students. Our overall hypothesis is that negative news exposure increases negative affect to heighten attention to alcohol and food ads thereby increasing subsequent consumption.

This pilot is designed to test a digital experimental procedure to confirm our proposed relationships; and further, to validate an eye tracking measure of attention to food and alcohol cues on a mobile device. We will use eye-tracking technology to objectively quantify attention to food and alcohol branded images using a smartphone platform; and further, validate eye tracking measures of attention to food and alcohol cues collected on a smartphone by comparing it to data collected using a research-grade device. We will also assess the association between negative news exposure and food and alcohol craving measured using ecological momentary assessment.

The vision for our planned intervention is to target the link between watching negative news and alcohol and food consumption behaviors to reduce the risk of unhealthy consumption. Overall, the goal of the intervention would aim to reduce the increased attention to food or alcohol cues (monitored via mobile eye tracking) associated with watching news or visiting sites that carry news via a smartphone.