For Washington resident and St. Francis Borgia Regional High School grad Molly Light, her professional goals have always been clear: improve mental health and fight eating disorders through psychology.
Thanks to her hard work and a research program in Ireland, Light is even closer to bringing her knowledge, passion and goals back to the area.
Light attended Helias High School for her freshman through junior years, before transferring to Borgia High School and graduating in 2016.
She attended Saint Mary’s College before transferring to the University of Notre Dame her sophomore year.
She will graduate in 2020 with a degree in psychology and a minor in theology.
Light was inspired to enter into the psychology field in junior high, when a friend of hers suffered from an eating disorder.
After her friend returned from out-of-state treatment, Light said her friend struggled and did not have a positive therapy experience.
“I’ve always wanted to pursue eating disorder prevention, intervention and research,” Light remarked.
Looking to further her experience in psychology, Light wanted to work professionally this summer.
However, she also wanted to study abroad since she is a manager for the Notre Dame women’s basketball team, and her schedule does not allow that during the regular school year.
Light said she wanted to gain the experience of living in a foreign country, but also wanted to gain real world experience in her field of study.
Eventually, she discovered a perfect fit. Light found a researcher at Trinity College Dublin, who studies body image dissatisfaction, a major precursor of eating disorders, and the influence of social media on teenagers.
Light reached out to the researcher and was able to secure a research assistant position.
She secured funding for the Irish Internship Programme in April of 2019 through Notre Dame’s Dublin Global Gateway.
“It (the position) covers going out of the country and impacting my future,” she remarked.
Light spent eight weeks in Dublin, from late May to late July. During that time, she investigated the effects of social media on body image perceptions in Irish youth through various methods.
For the first part of her time in Dublin, Light said she familiarized herself with the language and literature of social media and its psychological impact.
She then worked mainly with Instagram, researching how teenagers are affected when exposed to certain images on the social media platform and how doing so often negatively impacts their own opinion of themselves.
One way Light researched the topic was through hashtags. She said she would search a hashtag such as “fitspiration.”
Then she scrolled through thousands of posts to find trends, systematically compiling and recording the images to be studied and used with future focus groups.
Light worked with participants of the study and the data obtained from them. She and others researching at Trinity College Dublin found trends among youth in regard to how they view themselves and others.
One thing the team studied is the pressure to have profile pictures appear a certain way, mainly “fit and perfect.”
One positive find Light discovered during her time researching was intervention methods on the part of Instagram.
After spending considerable time searching for and viewing images related to fitness and body image, Instagram sent her a warning message.
It cautioned Light that her searches could lead to unhealthy expectations and thoughts, as well as serious bodily harm, injury, and even death.
Light was happy to see the corporation has an algorithm to combat the problem of negative body image.
“It’s really awesome that Instagram does that,” she said.
Although the study focuses on Irish youth, Light said she found similarities and differences between the American and Irish cultures.
“I personally learned a lot,” she said. “I would compare it to America in my own head.”
She said she found some of the language, lingo and references used by Irish youth to be different than that of Americans, but found many of the same reactions and attitudes toward certain body types and images in both groups.
Starting in the fall, Trinity College Dublin’s researcher will begin a new round of focus groups with an emphasis on intervention.
“It will be compassion-based therapy,” said Light. “I’m hoping to get a grant to come back and see it all in motion with the focus groups.”
Light expressed how grateful she is for the research experience and the knowledge she has gained with the scientific study.
She wants to bring her knowledge about body image dissatisfaction and eating disorder prevention and intervention back to central Missouri someday.
After graduation, Light hopes to obtain a master’s or Ph.D. degree, possibly at Trinity College of Dublin.
She currently plans to move back to Missouri after graduation and specialize in eating disorder and body image therapy and treatment, possibly with a private practice.
Her ultimate goal would be to teach a university class, possibly at St. Louis University, on the subject.
Light expressed how much further the United States and particularly Missouri needs to progress in terms of mental health and eating disorder professional care.
Her goal is to increase the availability of help and decrease the negative effects of social media on the minds and bodies of Missouri’s youth.
“This experience has really helped with reaching that goal,” she added.