Research Interests

I specialize in understanding the health and development of US children and youth in today’s rapidly changing society. I use both statistical analyses of longitudinal national surveys and in-depth qualitative studies of local samples in my work.

Combining these different methods allows me to achieve my primary research aims: identifying demographic trends related to social inequalities among children and youth in the United States, then seeking to understand the processes underlying these trends by engaging with and developing theory rooted in sociological social psychology and the life course perspective. Current and recent funders include the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

My recent and ongoing research engages with three main areas: the implications of social inequalities for the health and development of children and youth, fertility inequalities and social norms, and health lifestyles among children and youth. Each of these research areas is influenced by the life course perspective, focusing on the reverberations of early life inequalities for human development, cultural influences on human lives, and the social embeddedness of human behaviors.

Below is a selection of media discussions of recent research.


Health Lifestyles and Technology Use

Much of my current research centers around the development of health lifestyles in children and youth. Researchers and policymakers recognize that individual health behaviors are often resistant to change, and many are increasingly looking to a health lifestyles approach to address this issue. Health lifestyles are groups of interrelated health behaviors, rooted in group-based social identities, which are shaped by knowledge and resources and have important consequences for health and other life outcomes. Significant gaps in knowledge about health lifestyles remain: the empirical operationalization of health lifestyles lags behind theoretical development; the relationship between the multiple health behaviors and underlying social identities that comprise health lifestyles has been acknowledged but not studied empirically; and perhaps most importantly, we know very little about health lifestyles prior to adulthood.

A focus on health lifestyles in the early life course has the potential to turn the typical approach to health behavior policies and interventions on its head. Policies targeting young people’s health behaviors most frequently focus on influencing single behaviors. Results are often disappointing. In contrast, a lifestyle approach acknowledges that health behaviors do not happen in a vacuum; rather, they co-occur in sets and influence one another. These sets of health behaviors arise from deeply rooted identities that, if they do not themselves change, can undermine efforts to alter behaviors. A health lifestyle approach to crafting social policy suggests that targeting the underlying identities that produce a certain lifestyle may be more effective than focusing on a single behavior. This approach must first be informed by research on what young people’s health lifestyles look like, how they form over time, and how identities and multiple behaviors are related.

“My research team is studying technology use among children and youth as an important, rapidly changing health behavior that is disrupting and changing young people’s health lifestyles.”

My research team is studying technology use among children and youth as an important, rapidly changing health behavior that is disrupting and changing young people’s health lifestyles. Looking at technology use in the mobile internet era helps us understand how social norms around health behavior form, how families make decisions around and try to regulate or foster young people’s technology use, and how people draw on existing understandings and inequalities to make sense of technology use. I am working on a new book that examines health lifestyles and technology use among US children and youth. Our team has collected new interview data from teenagers and their parents during the COVID-19 pandemic to understand how the pandemic is shaping young people’s health lifestyles and technology use.


Fertility-Related Inequalities and Norms

I am part of research teams that are currently studying two important topics: (1) documenting and explaining disparities in maternal and infant health outcomes among LGBQ women in the United States (Principal Investigator: Professor Bethany Everett), and (2) examining the impact of full access to contraception on women’s and men’s family formation and their educational and economic opportunities (Principal Investigator: Professor Amanda Stevenson).

Most of my ongoing and recent research studies social norms—group-based expectations for how people are supposed to behave, talk, think, and feel. In 2017 I published a book, “Mixed Messages: Norms and Social Control around Teen Sex and Pregnancy” (Stefanie Mollborn, Oxford University Press). Summary: Teenagers in the United States hear conflicting messages about sex from everyone around them. How do teens understand these messages? In Mixed Messages, Stefanie Mollborn examines how social norms and social control work through in-depth interviews with college students and teen mothers and fathers, revealing the tough conversations teenagers just can’t have with adults. By showing that the norms existing today around teen sex are ineffective, failing to regulate sexual behavior, and instead punishing teens that violate them, Mollborn calls for a more thoughtful and consistent dialogue between teens and adults, emphasizing messages that will lead to more positive health outcomes.

“Most of my ongoing and recent research studies social norms—group-based expectations for how people are supposed to behave, talk, think, and feel.”


Selected Media Discussions of Recent Research