June 2024 Spotlight – Xiaoran Sun, PhD

This month, we are delighted to introduce Dr. Xiaoran Sun (sunx0521@umn.edu; @xiaoransunpsu), as our member in the spotlight. Dr. Sun is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Family Social Science at the University of Minnesota.

Can you write a couple sentences on some aspect of your career development?
My current research focuses on adolescents’ and parents’ digital behaviors (e.g., use of smartphone and social media) and the implications of these behaviors for their relationships and well-being. I mainly conduct this research using intensive longitudinal digital data collected from participants’ smartphones. I am also interested in the application of computational methods (e.g., machine learning) in family and developmental research.

The program that was largely influential to my career development was the IGERT-Big Data Social Science program at the Pennsylvania State University. Along with getting my doctoral degree in Human Development & Family Studies at Penn State, I was trained in this program to collect, handle, and analyze “big data” to answer important social science questions. The skills (e.g., data mining from social media, text analysis, machine learning analysis) that I gained through this program significantly shaped my research interests and career path. With these skills, as well as my interests in digital data and analytics, I joined the Stanford Screenomics Lab for my postdoctoral training to collect intensive objective observational data from adolescents’ and parents’ smartphones and understand their digital behaviors. I was also funded and trained by the Stanford Data Science Scholars Program during my postdoctoral training to better understand the development and application of data science methods in a variety of research disciplines. Beyond my current
appointment in the Department of Family Social Science at University of Minnesota, I am also a core
faculty of Learning Informatics Lab in the College of Education and Human Development and an affiliate faculty member of the Data Science Initiative, the Minnesota Population Center, and the Asian American Studies Program. I am super passionate about collaborating with colleagues with a variety of backgrounds and from different disciplines to use innovative data and methods to answer important questions in our society about children and families.

Please describe a particular recent finding, current study, or recent publication and
what makes you excited about it.  

I have been funded by the University of Minnesota’s Grant-in-Aid of Research, Artistry and Scholarship to use the smartphone data that I have collected from 154 adolescents aged 13-17 for up to six months to understand how they use their smartphones overnight. Through our data I have been fascinated by the cases where adolescents use their smartphones constantly throughout the night, such as scrolling through a variety of TikTok videos, non-stop, from 8pm to 4am. I can’t help but wonder how this kind of smartphone/social media usage would influence their sleep, cognitive development, mental health, academic performance, and peer and family relationships – both immediately and over a long term. Currently, my students and I are working on quantitative descriptions of adolescents’ overnight smartphone use patterns. Our goal is to have an accurate and detailed depiction of what adolescents were actually doing on their smartphones overnight, and to understand the implications of their overnight smartphone use for their well-being.

In addition, I would like to share a recent open access publication focusing on my research on the application of data science methods, titled “Supervised machine learning for exploratory analysis in family research.” This was an invited article for the Mid-Decade Special Issue on Theory and Methods by Journal of Marriage and Family. This paper uses nontechnical language to introduce machine learning and talks about the potential theoretical contribution of machine learning-based exploratory studies to our field.

Please share your reflections on your interactions with the Asian Caucus 
I have been a member of the Asian Caucus for four years and have enjoyed a lot of the activities that the Caucus has organized in conferences. I am grateful that I got to connect with many Asian/Asian American scholars through this organization. The resources being shared through the mailing list have also been super helpful. I am especially excited about the Asian Caucus gathering at SRA this year!

Any upcoming talks or presentations we should know about?

My graduate student mentee, Ting Xu, will be presenting her first first-authored study on longitudinal associations between COVID-19 media messages and adolescents’ preventive health behaviors at SRA in April. I’m super excited for her!

In addition, another graduate student working with me, Kimberly Nielsen, has submitted a symposium proposal to National Council on Family Relations (NCFR) focused on family members’ smartphone use. This symposium brings together four papers on adolescents’ and parents’ smartphone use behaviors, with important practical implications. I hope this symposium will be accepted and presented at NCFR this November.

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A weblink you prefer to share?

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