Underwood somehow got the project approved by the IRB, received a $3.4 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), hooked up with Ceryx and Global Relay — companies that help financial companies capture employee communication per SEC rules — and got over 175 of her 281 participants to sign up for the Digital Panopticon. (Some students dropped out because they preferred iPhones to Blackberries, says Underwood.) The kids and their parents have to sign “detailed consent forms” yearly. There are 81 girls and 94 boys; 23% of them are African-American, 50% are Caucasian, and 15% are Hispanic. Nearly half come from families that make less that $75K per year. Other than paying participants $50 for lab visits, the only financial compensation is the phone and its associated plan, which comes out to a little over $600 per person.
The kids are now high school seniors; the capture of their digital communications over the past four years provides an intimate look at their private lives. There have been countless studies about how kids use technology, but this detailed collection is the first of its kind.
Previous studies have involved looking at teens’ social networking pages, blogs, and chat rooms — all publicly available. “No previous published research has provided adolescents with cell phones or smart phones and recorded the content of their electronic communication,” write the researchers in a recent paper. “The only previous study that measured the content of text messaging required college students to write down all text messages for a 24-hr period in a diary.”
Not as good, obviously.