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Erik Willis Headshot
Erik Willis, PhD

Erik Willis, PhD, a research scientist with the Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention (HPDP), is the recipient of a 2022 New Investigator Award from the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). The award recognizes early career researchers who “are likely to continue to make a significant contribution to knowledge in basic or clinical exercise science or sports medicine.”

ACSM is the world’s largest sports medicine organization. It represents 70 occupations within the field of sports medicine, with more than 50,000 members and certified professionals from more than 90 countries around the world. As one of two recipients of this year’s New Investigator Award, Dr. Willis received funding to attend the ACSM Annual Meeting and World Conference and present his research in San Diego, California from May 31 to June 4.

At the ACSM annual meeting, Dr. Willis presented a poster titled “Feasibility and Acceptability of Wearable Sensor Placement for Young Children,” relaying findings from a study he led on how best to outfit children with a wearable sensor that can help scientists track young children’s electronic screen use.

According to Dr. Willis, the relationship between screen time and children’s behavior and health outcomes is important to understand but difficult to evaluate. Electronic screens may offer some benefits. For example, some programming that children watch on screens may be educational, and some screen use involves social contact, like video calls with relatives. However, electronic screen use may also pose risks, such as lower levels of physical activity, poor sleep quality, and obesity.

Guidelines for parents and caregivers often suggest limiting electronic screen use for children. But it has been difficult for researchers to determine the true risks and benefits of screen use due to the difficulty in obtaining an accurate measure of how much time children actually spend watching screens. Researchers currently lack the ability to evaluate both the positive or negative aspects of children’s screen use due to limited monitoring devices.

“We don’t know for sure if it’s really the time kids spend watching screens that’s contributing to the risks that we think may be associated with screen time,” said Dr. Willis. “Is it screen time or is it the co-behaviors that are typically happening with screen time, like poor nutrition when kids are watching television or the time they spend sitting? What if the content is educational? With the tools we currently have, we can’t tease out if screen time is the problem.”

Recently, Dr. Willis and a group of colleagues were discussing the possibility of a study to determine if some types of screen use, like those with educational content or social contact, could actually be beneficial. But he and the other researchers realized that they had a fundamental problem. Existing studies rely on reports from parents about how much time children spend watching screens, and that method isn’t very accurate.

“We all started talking, and we realized that we don’t have a good way to measure our outcome of interest,” said Dr. Willis. “So, we thought, let’s see if we can find some way to measure this.”

As a first step, he reached out to a group of researchers in Germany who had conducted experiments in adults with sensors that detect colored light and found that they have the potential to detect light emitted by screens and distinguish it from other types of light. The German group has agreed collaborate with Dr. Willis to expand this work to young children.

In this initial study, Dr. Willis needed to determine how to make the sensors wearable in a way that would be comfortable for children and stay attached to them throughout the day. The study recruited families with young children and asked parents to have their child try out wearing a sensor in different locations. He found that sensors clipped to a child’s shirt or embedded in a pair of eyeglasses were the most successful.

Next, he plans to conduct a larger research study where children will wear the sensors in a controlled environment where researchers can monitor exactly how long they spend looking at screens.

In order to turn the raw data from the sensors into something that can accurately match what researchers see in the room, Dr. Willis will be collaborating with machine learning scientists who will create an algorithm that will compare the two types of data and then hopefully calibrate the sensors, turning them into accurate instruments that can measure electronic screen use.

“If this works out, it could change the way that we measure kids’ electronic screen use,” said Dr. Willis. “It would be like going from questionnaires to accelerometers and Fitbits to measure physical activity. All of the science around electronic screen use could be reevaluated using a more precise wearable.”

American College of Sports Medicine 2022 Annual Meeting and World Congresses
Erik Willis won the New Investigator Award and presented his research at the 2022 ACSM annual meeting.

ACSM selected Dr. Willis for the New Investigator Award based on multiple criteria, including the strength of his poster submission, his record of publications, his success in obtaining research grant funding, his independent contributions to research, and the future potential of his work.

“It is quite an honor to be recognized by ACSM—the largest sports medicine organization in the world with over 50,000 members,” said Dianne Ward, EdD, the director of the Children’s Healthy Weight Research Group at HPDP and an ACSM Fellow. “Erik’s work is groundbreaking, and this recognition well-deserved.”

Erik Willis, PhD, joined HPDP in 2019 as a research scientist with the Go NAPSACC project, part of the Children’s Healthy Weight Research Group. Prior to joining HPDP, he received his doctorate in exercise physiology from the University of Kansas and a Master of Public Health in epidemiology and biostatistics from Yale University and completed a postdoctoral fellowship with the National Cancer Institute.

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