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Emma Bedor Hiland

In the age of social media, AI, and telehealth, many are inclined to share their personal health data online with little to no concern for how that data may be used, whether it’s for or against them. Most people who use social media like Facebook, Instagram, or TikTok – or even listen to podcasts – are familiar with the aesthetically-pleasing advertisements that encourage users to download an app that will help them take better care of their mental health.

But is your data actually safe in these apps? This is the question Dr. Emma Bedor Hiland, assistant professor of communications at The College of Saint Rose, asked herself when writing her essay, “How Smart Tech Tried to Solve the Mental Health Crisis and Only Made It Worse,” the winner of the 2022 David Roscoe Award for an Early-Career Essay on Science, Ethics, and Society.

We spoke to Bedor Hiland about her essay, and what led her to explore the commodification of mental healthcare through technology, below.

Tell us more about your background.

I am originally from New Jersey but as a teenager I moved to the Finger Lakes region of New York where I completed high school. I then attended college at SUNY Geneseo, where I realized that I really enjoy learning about and researching the relationship between media and culture. I wanted to continue pursuing research, so I then entered a master’s program at Penn State in Media Studies. During that time, my interest in media became more focused upon the relationship between health and culture, particularly media representations related to women’s health. I went on to the University of Minnesota where, in addition to pursuing a Ph.D. in Communication Studies, I was also trained in bioethics. At that point, my interest in media began to expand to include technologies, because media really ought to be inclusive of technology. I started to learn about scholarship that provided critical studies of science, medicine, and technology, which also included critical approaches to algorithms and AI. When I learned about a new type of smartphone application being released in the Google Play and iTunes stores, which claimed to improve the mental health of users, it seemed like a perfect opportunity to apply my interests in technology, health, and bioethics to an emerging therapeutic medium. That research became the focus of my dissertation and ultimately my first book, titled Therapy Tech, published in 2021.

How long have you been teaching at the College?

This is my first year (I began in the fall of 2022).

What classes are you teaching right now?

Communication law, introduction to mass media, and communication and culture.

Where did you find the inspiration for the essay?

It’s very important to me that my writing be accessible to the public and not just read by academics. When I wrote the article for The Hedgehog Review, I was excited to take what I knew about mental health technologies and apply that to recent events and controversies surrounding Crisis Text Line. Crisis Text Line is used not just in the United States, but also internationally, so being able to provide an accessible critique couched within the theoretical framework my book offered had two benefits. It could raise awareness about a significant problem (the lack of data privacy in the realm of mental health technologies) while also reaching more than an academic audience. The award I received from the Hastings Center is specifically for public-facing essays, and it’s wonderful to have those sorts of contributions acknowledged because their impact can still be significant, even if it’s not the format that most academic scholarship takes.

What do you hope readers will take away from it?

My hope is that more people think critically about whether technology can even scratch the surface of addressing the mental healthcare crisis that we are experiencing globally. In my view, it cannot, yet there are many others (including medical professionals and technologists) who believe technologies are the most viable solution to the lack of equitable access to mental healthcare services. When we use technologies to address problems that are already human-made, those technologies often create additional, unforeseen problems unto themselves. In the case of Crisis Text Line, as I write in the article, users don’t expect that their data ever would be – or ever has been – shared. Yet [Crisis Text Line partnered] with and shared extremely private and sensitive data about users. More generally speaking, without regulation in the realm of public-facing health technologies, it is likely that violations of terms of service agreements, as well as normative expectations of data privacy, will continue. The more awareness that I and others can bring to this problem, the more likely it is that it will finally be addressed.

How do you apply the subject you’ve explored in this essay to your teaching?

Encouraging critical thinking skills is integral to my teaching, and I try to incorporate real world examples of controversies and significant events to stimulate discussions. Much of what we talk and learn about in communication studies relates to the social and cultural effects of new mediated forms and technologies. There are always opportunities to talk about how media and technologies affect my students and the ways they live their lives.

What does winning this award mean to you?

The award I received is designated for early-career scholars, and to have my work recognized for its contribution in this stage in my professional development is such an honor. I hope that my future scholarship, including that which is public facing, will continue to be perceived as significant and valuable.

Are there any other topics you want to explore in your work going forward?

I am continuing to research and write about technologies that structure our lives and everyday practices, particularly in the domain of health. Over the last several years, I have also been conducting research about tiny homes and tiny house communities as they can provide health and well-being interventions.

Is there anything else you want the Saint Rose community to know?

I am so happy to have joined the College of Saint Rose and excited to continue learning about, and contributing to, our community.

Read Dr. Bedor Hiland’s award-winning essay in The Hedgehog Review here. You can also listen to an audio-version of the essay here.

By Sarah Heikkinen