Blogging Relieves Stress on New Mothers

New mothers who read and write blogs may feel less alone than mothers who do not participate in a blogging community, according to family studies researchers.

“It looks like blogging might be helping these women as they transition into motherhood because they may begin to feel more connected to their extended family and friends, which leads them to feel more supported,” said Brandon T. McDaniel, graduate student in human development and family studies at Penn State. “That potentially is going to spill out into other aspects of their well being, including their marital relationship with their partner, the ways that they’re feeling about their parenting stress, and eventually into their levels of depression.”

McDaniel and colleagues from Brigham Young University surveyed 157 new mothers about their media use and their well-being. The moms were all first-time parents with only one child under the age of 18 months — most much younger than this. The researchers report in the online version of Maternal and Child Health Journal that blogging had a positive impact on new mothers, but social networking — mainly Facebook and MySpace — did not seem to impact their well-being.

“We’re not saying that those who end up feeling more supported all of a sudden no longer have stresses, they’re still going to have those stressful moments you have as a parent,” said McDaniel.

“But because they’re feeling more supported, their thoughts and their feelings about that stress might change, and they begin to feel less stressed about those things.”

McDaniel pointed out several potential benefits for new mothers who blog, including giving moms both a way to connect with family and friends who do not live nearby and an outlet to use and showcase their hobbies and accomplishments, particularly for stay-at-home moms.

The researchers found that 61 percent of the mothers surveyed wrote their own blogs and 76 percent read blogs. Eighty-nine percent of the mothers who wrote their own blogs did so to “document personal experiences or share them with others,” and 86 percent wanted to stay in touch with family and friends through the blog.

Because this is one of the first studies to look at the effects of participation in online communities on new mothers, McDaniel noted that there is not enough information collected yet to determine how or why blogging and social networking have markedly different impacts on new moms. However, this study demonstrated that mothers who blogged frequently show stronger connections to their family and friends.

The researchers saw a significant correlation between a strong connection to family and friends and increased feelings of social support, which in turn led to higher marital satisfaction, less marital conflict and less parenting stress. The mothers who experienced fewer feelings of parenting stress also had fewer feelings of depression.

Study participants completed an online survey that focused on two main subjects — their media use and their well-being. Mothers rated their feelings on scales corresponding to each item. Moms also tallied time spent on different activities throughout the day, including sleep, housework, childcare tasks and computer usage. They reported spending about three hours per day on the computer, using the Internet — behind only childcare, at almost nine hours a day, and sleep, at about seven hours per day.

McDaniel is continuing this line of research and exploring why blogging has the significant impact it does with new moms, while social networking may not always show the same effect. He emphasizes that this initial study is all correlational research, and one cannot establish causation from this study.

Sarah M. Coyne and Erin K. Holmes, assistant professors, School of Family Life, Brigham Young University, also worked on this research.

[box type=”shadow”]This post originally published by Penn State Live. Photo via Flickr[/box]

Daylight Saving Time Leads to Cyberloafing

The annual shift to daylight saving time and its accompanying loss of sleep cause employees to spend more time than normal surfing the Web for content unrelated to their work, resulting in potentially massive productivity losses, according to researchers.

Web searches related to entertainment rise sharply the Monday after the shift to daylight saving time when compared to the preceding and subsequent Mondays, according to D. Lance Ferris, assistant professor of management and organization in Penn State’s Smeal College of Business, and his colleagues David T. Wagner, Singapore Management University; Christopher M. Barnes, Virginia Tech University; and Vivien K. G. Lim, National University of Singapore. They based their findings on an examination of six years worth of data from Google.

Using existing data that shows that people exhibit poorer self-control when they’re tired, the researchers said that the lost sleep due to the time change — an average of 40 minutes that Sunday night — makes employees less likely to self-regulate their behavior and more inclined to spend time cyberloafing, or surfing the Internet for personal pursuits while on the clock.

Ferris and his colleagues also conducted a lab experiment in which they monitored subjects’ sleep the night before they were required to watch a boring lecture online. The less sleep the subjects received the night before, the more time they spent surfing the Web when they were supposed to be watching the lecture.
Interruptions in sleep had the same effect. In fact, the subjects on average engaged in 8.4 minutes more of cyberloafing (or 20 percent of the assigned task time) for every hour of interrupted sleep the night before.

While a few minutes of personal Web surfing now and then may seem harmless, given that about one-third of the world’s countries participate in some form of daylight saving time, the researchers write in the Journal of Applied Psychology that “global productivity losses from a spike in employee cyberloafing are potentially staggering.” In light of their discovery and other research on the true energy-saving effects of daylight saving time, the authors encourage policymakers to revisit the costs and benefits of the time change policy.

They said their findings have implications for managers, who in the current economy, are squeezing more and more work out of fewer employees.

“In the push for high productivity, managers and organizations may cut into the sleep of employees by requiring longer work hours,” the researchers write. “This may promote vicious cycles of lost sleep, resulting in less time spent working, which could result in more frantic pushes for extended work time. Managers may find that by avoiding infringement on employee sleep, they will get more productivity out of their employees.”

The researchers said that employers can facilitate more self-regulation of their employees’ cyberloafing if they encourage their employees to get a sufficient amount of sleep. Outside of that, they recommend turning computer screens so that colleagues can see them or even providing designated break times when personal Internet use would be permissible.

[box type=”shadow”]This story originally appeared in Penn State Live, by Wyatt DuBois, 814-863-3798, http://www.smeal.psu.edu/.[/box]

The Medical Minute: Hand Hygiene

Learn simple ways to promote health in your home.

Our hands are one of the chief ways we interact with our environment. Think about what you touch daily – doors, desks, food, other people, pets. Hundreds or thousands of other people have often touched the things we touch, and most of them have hands that are not sterile. People with colds or sore throats touch their mouth and nose, picking up the infectious agents on their hands. Then they transfer the infectious bacteria or virus to the surfaces they touch. Next we come along and get the germs on our own hands, touch our eyes, nose or mouth and soon are infected ourselves.

Making dinner, we handle raw meat and then make the salad, perhaps placing E. coli bacteria on the lettuce and potentially infecting the family. A server in a restaurant coming down with hepatitis could give the virus to dozens of customers if he or she uses improper hygiene.

Health care workers should be well aware of hand hygiene; it’s one of the national patient safety goals for the Joint Commission for Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO). Hospitals are ground zero for potential infections. Doctors, nurses and other health care personnel are supposed to sanitize their hands before and after a patient contact, but with multiple contacts throughout the day, it can easily be missed. Although patients are most susceptible to infectious agents, visitors can both bring them in and take them out.

It’s really fairly simple to keep one’s hands clean; the hard part is remembering to do it. Alcohol gel sanitizers are effective at killing bacteria and viruses, but they work best for hands that are not visibly dirty. Visible dirt should be washed off. Proper hand washing includes soap, but anti-bacterial soap is not recommended. For antibacterial soap to work, the hands must be scrubbed for 10 minutes with a stiff brush like a surgeon before operating. We do not require sterile skin, just clean skin. There is increasing evidence that using antibacterial soap has lead to resistance to the antiseptics in the soaps.

The purpose of soap is not to kill germs; it is to dissolve dirt and float it away with the germs. Hot water is not necessary to be effective, but heat helps the soap to dissolve so it can work. The most important part is time – to work, hands should be lathered together for at least 15 seconds, longer if possible – long enough to sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice.

Here are some simple rules to reduce the risk to you and your family:

  1. Wash hands before food preparation and after handling raw meat or fish.
  2. Wash hands after using the bathroom.
  3. Wash or sanitize hands before touching your eyes, nose or mouth in case you have infectious agents on your hands.
  4. Wash hands after handling garbage, dirty diapers, dirty laundry.
  5. Wash or sanitize hands before and after any medical contact, such as, cleaning a wound or changing a dressing or caring for a sick child.
  6. If you have a cough or cold, wash or sanitize your hands after sneezing or coughing or blowing your nose to reduce the spread of germs to surfaces where others can pick them up. Ideally, cough or sneeze into the crook of your arm, not your hands.

It’s important to keep these admonitions toward cleanliness in perspective, lest we become fearful of our environment. Intact skin is a good barrier. Although tiny breaks in the skin can be a huge portal of entry for bacteria, it takes a while for an infection to set in. If you are working in your yard, or tinkering with the car, or playing contact sports or other activities where you may pick up germs, it’s OK to wait to wash up when you are finished. Be careful not to touch your eyes, nose or mouth until your hands are clean and chances are, you will be fine.

Your children will get an average of eight colds per year for their first several years, and that may be a good thing. Some experts think it helps their immune systems learn to work properly. Teach them to wash up after outside play, before eating, after using the bathroom. But perfect cleanliness is neither possible nor desirable.

Keeping our hands clean is a good habit to develop. It’s not necessary to avoid dirt entirely, but it is important to keep it on the outside where it can’t hurt us.

[box type=”shadow”]This post originally appeared at Penn State Live. John Messmer is an associate professor of family and community medicine at Penn State College of Medicine and a staff physician at Penn State Hershey Medical Center. Photo via Flickr.[/box]

Limited Access to Higher Education May Harm Society

The rising cost of a college education and limited access to financial aid may create a less productive workforce and steeper wealth inequity, according to a study by two North American economists.

Students with low-income parents are discovering that it is more difficult to find funds to pay for a college education now compared to students of similar economic backgrounds in the 1980s, said Alexander Monge-Naranjo, assistant professor of economics, Penn State.

“The consensus was that in the 1980s, credit constraints didn’t seem to matter for those who went to college,” said Monge-Naranjo. “But according to the latest data, we see family income and parental wealth are making a big difference in who is attending college.”

Monge-Naranjo said there were several reasons for the move away from affordability. Over the last two decades, more higher-paying jobs required a college degree. The higher demand for a college education led universities to increase tuition, according to Monge-Narajo.

At the same time, money available through government loan programs remained flat or, when adjusting for in inflation, declined. During the 1990s, the percentage of undergraduates who borrowed from government lending programs increased significantly. Of those students, the ones at the top limit of their borrowing capacity tripled to 52 percent. Many more students are relying on private lenders for loans, Monge-Narajo said.
In the 1980s, credit constraints — factors that limit financial access to college funding, such as caps on financial assistance and family income — did not significantly stop students from attending college, once the researchers controlled for other factors, such as SAT score, age and race. Even poor students who had little financial resources to pay for college, but who were smart, could access credit to pursue an education, Monge-Naranjo said.

The researchers, who reported their findings in the current issue of the American Economic Review, said a shift occurred in the 1990s as more low-income students began to struggle to access credit to pay for a college. During the 1990s, youths from high-income families were 16 percent more likely to attend college than youths from low-income families.

Monge-Naranjo, who worked with Lance Lochner, associate professor, Western economics and director, CIBC Centre for Human Capital and Productivity, University of Western Ontario, used the most recent data from the National Longitudinal Surveys of Youth and the Armed Forces Qualifying Test to examine the relationships between intelligence, family income and college attendance.

According to Monge-Naranjo, constraints on financial aid could have far-reaching economic impacts. When poor but intelligent workers are unable to earn a college degree, their career choices are restricted, Monge-Naranjo said. That could mean less qualified and less productive workers will attain those positions.

“It’s a matter of economic efficiency,” said Monge-Naranjo. “Are we choosing the best individuals for the job, or just the individual whose parents are wealthy? In the long-term that may have an effect on the economy, although it may take a couple of generations to find out and, even then, perhaps be hard to quantify.”
The National Science Foundation supported this work.

[box type=”shadow”]This article was originally published by Matthew Swayne and Andrea Elyse Messer for Penn State Live. The authors can be reached at 814-865-9481. Photo via Flickr.[/box]

Satellite Images of Nighttime Lights Help Track Disease Outbreaks

The research is expected to help medical professionals to synchronize vaccination strategies.

University Park, PA

Satellite images of nighttime lights, which normally are used to detect population centers, also can help keep tabs on diseases in developing nations, according to new research. An international research team that includes Matthew Ferrari, an assistant professor of biology at Penn State, found that the new technique accurately indicates fluctuations in population density — and thus the corresponding risk of epidemic — that can elude current methods of monitoring outbreaks.

The research, reported in the current issue of the journal Science, is expected to help medical professionals to synchronize vaccination strategies with increases in population density.

Ferrari and his team used nighttime images of the three largest cities in the West African nation of Niger to correlate seasonal population fluctuations with the onset of measles epidemics during the country’s dry season, roughly from September to May. Because many pathogens that cause epidemics flourish in areas where the population density is the greatest, satellite imagery showing brighter areas — indicating greater numbers of people — then can be used to pinpoint disease hot spots. The images, taken between 2000 and 2004 by a U.S. Department of Defense satellite, were compared to records from Niger’s Ministry of Health of weekly measles outbreaks during the same years in Maradi, Zinder, and Niger’s capital, Niamey.

In many agriculturally dependent nations, such as Niger, people migrate from rural to urban areas after the growing season, explained Nita Bharti, a postdoctoral researcher at Princeton University and the first-listed author of the research paper. As people gather in cities during the dry-season months when agricultural work is unavailable, these urban centers frequently become hosts to outbreaks of crowd-dependent diseases such as measles. Because temporary and seasonal migrations are very hard to measure directly, the night lights are an important source of data for Africa and Asia, especially, where other sources of data are sometimes absent.

The team found that measles cases were most prevalent when a city’s lighted area was largest and brightest. “We found that seasonal brightness for all three cities changed similarly,” Ferrari said. “Brightness was below average for Maradi, Zinder, and Niamey during the agriculturally busy rainy season, then rose to above average as people moved to urban areas during the dry season. Measles transmission rates followed the same pattern — low in the rainy season, high in the dry season.” The team members also found that the relationship between brightness and measles transmission appeared even clearer at the local level, as did the potential value of the researchers’ technique in providing medical treatment.

For example, in Niamey, measles cases were recorded daily for three districts, or communes, during the 2003-to-2004 dry season. Both brightness and measles infection peaked early in the northern districts in February and March of 2004. A two-week mass-vaccination campaign was launched in March and April of 2004, but population density, as determined by light brightness, already had started to decline in the north of the city.
“Ultimately, the goal is to use this research to design better preventative-vaccination programs and more-efficient responsive vaccination strategies when outbreaks do occur,” Ferrari said.

Bharti added that the team’s new method is not limited to understanding measles. “Think about malaria or meningitis,” she said. “These diseases are geographically specific, for the most part, to areas where this would be a useful technique. These are places that are not so industrialized that they always will be saturated with brightness and where there may be some level of agricultural dependence so that there are detectable labor migrations.”

The researchers also are exploring the use of nighttime lights with other large-scale population-tracking methods such as the monitoring of mobile-phone usage.

“When used alone, both population-tracking methods have their shortcomings,” Bharti said. “Nighttime-lights imagery is susceptible to weather conditions, while mobile-phone usage data are biased in the portion of the population it can represent.” Bharti and her co-authors hope that when nighttime imagery is combined with other techniques, the measures will be complementary.

In addition, the team members hope to explore uses for nighttime satellite data outside of epidemiology, such as tracking population displacement and mass migration during a war or following a natural disaster.

“We now have a technique that allows us to observe and measure changes in population density,” Bharti said. “This short-term use of nighttime-lights data could apply to a number of different situations beyond seasonal migrations and infectious diseases, such as humanitarian and disaster aid. We’re excited about the potential this method has for other important global-health issues.”

In addition to Ferrari and Bharti, other authors of the study include Andrew Tatem of the University of Florida; Rebecca Grais of Epicentre, a non-profit research facility located in France; Ali Djibo of the Nigerian Ministry of Health; and Bryan Grenfell of Princeton University. The research was supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

[box type=”shadow”]This article originally published at Penn State Live. For more information, contact Ferrari at 814-865-6080 or mferrari@psu.edu, or Barbara Kennedy, Penn State Science PIO, at 814-863-4682 or science@psu.edu. Photo via Flickr.[/box]

Study Looks at Water Quality in Private Wells Near Marcellus Drilling

Bryan Swistock
Bryan Swistock, extension water resource specialist.
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A study of more than 200 drinking-water wells near Marcellus Shale natural-gas wells in 20 counties did not find statistically significant evidence of contamination from hydraulic fracturing — a process used by gas drillers to release natural gas using a high-pressure mixture of water, sand and chemical additives.

The study was conducted by researchers and extension educators in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences. The research was funded by the state General Assembly’s Center for Rural Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Water Resources Research Center at Penn State. A free online seminar focusing on the study results will take place from noon to 1 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 1. Information about how to register for the live webinar can be found at http://extension.psu.edu/water/webinar-series/schedule online. A recorded version will be available for those who cannot log in for the live offering.

“This is the first project to provide an unbiased and large-scale study of water quality in private water wells used to supply drinking water to rural homes and farms both before and after the drilling of Marcellus gas wells nearby,” said project leader Bryan Swistock, water resources extension specialist.

Conducted from February 2010 to July 2011, the study found methane in about a quarter of the water wells before any drilling occurred, but the concentrations were generally below advisory levels for treatment, Swistock said. The presence of methane can be naturally occurring or related to drilling activity.

“We really didn’t see any significant changes in methane levels after drilling or hydraulic fracturing,” he added.

There is no federal drinking water standard for methane as it can be ingested without harm, but high levels can cause an explosion hazard as the dissolved methane escapes from water.

Elevated levels of dissolved bromide were measured in some water wells and appeared to be a result of the gas-well drilling process and not hydraulic fracturing.

“Bromide was not detected in any of the water wells before drilling, but it did show up in several wells after drilling, which needs to be investigated further,” Swistock said.

The study’s modest number of samples for methane and bromide and the relatively short length of the study speak to the need for additional data collection and analysis, Swistock pointed out.

“Future research should look at a broader number of water contaminants over a longer period of time,” Swistock said. “More detailed and longer-term studies are critical to ensuring that Pennsylvanians’ private water supplies are protected.”

Wells in the study were not randomly selected. Project publicity solicited participation from well owners who knew gas drilling was going to occur near them, and many responded by contacting Swistock or other project investigators working for Penn State Extension.

“Our network of Penn State Extension educators throughout the state was absolutely critical to the efficient completion of this project,” Swistock said.

The first phase of the study included 48 private water wells located within about 2,500 feet of a Marcellus well pad. These wells were tested by Penn State researchers both before and after gas-well drilling. Twenty-six of the 48 were near Marcellus wells that were drilled and fracked, 16 sites had drilling but no fracking, and six sites were controls where no drilling or fracking occurred.

These wells were tested for 18 common water-quality parameters that could occur from gas-drilling activity, including chloride, barium, sodium, iron, manganese, methane, ethane, bromide, and oil and grease.

The second phase was comprised of 185 additional private water wells located within about 5,000 feet of a Marcellus well pad. Homeowners provided water test results collected by independent, state-accredited laboratories prior to Marcellus gas-well drilling. These tests then were compared with samples collected by Penn State personnel or by homeowners trained by Penn State personnel after gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing occurred.

Phase two included 173 sites near hydraulically fractured gas wells and 12 control sites where no drilling had occurred with five miles. These wells were tested for 14 common water quality parameters — methane, ethane, bromide and oil and grease were not included due to funding and sample-collection constraints.

Separate statistical analyses of results from each phase of the project produced similar results, according to Swistock.

In addition to the increased bromide concentrations in some water wells, a small number of water wells examined in the study also appeared to be affected by disturbance due to drilling, as evidenced by sediment and/or increased levels of iron and manganese that were noticeable to the water-supply owner and confirmed by water-testing results.

“While most water wells, even within 3,000 feet of a Marcellus well, did not have changes in water quality after drilling or hydraulic fracturing, that was the distance where we did sporadically measure increased bromide, sediment or metals. This seems to be the distance that we need to focus on for future testing and research,” Swistock said.

In addition to future research directions, the study also identified critical education needs for owners of private water wells. Most water-well owners had difficulty interpreting detailed water-test reports that they received as part of pre-drilling surveys, according to the researchers.

“As a result, most homeowners with pre-drilling water-quality problems were unable to identify them even after receiving extensive water-testing reports,” Swistock said. “There is a clear need to help homeowners understand pre-drilling problems, their risks and how to solve them.”

Other investigators on this project were Elizabeth Boyer, associate professor of water resources and director of the Pennsylvania Water Resources Research Center in the School of Forest Resources; James Clark, extension educator based in McKean County; Mark Madden, extension educator based in Sullivan County; and Dana Rizzo, extension educator based in Westmoreland County.

The full initial report and executive summary of this study are available on the Center for Rural Pennsylvania’s website at http://www.rural.palegislature.us/. The investigators currently are preparing this work to submit for publication in the peer-reviewed literature.

This story was originally published at Penn State Live. http://live.psu.edu/story/55987

How Well Do We Predict Floods?

By Melissa Beattie-Moss
Research/Penn State

There was no Ark involved and it didn’t last 40 days — but when the remnants of Tropical Storm Lee dumped more rain on the already saturated Northeast, the result was the Susquehanna River’s worst flooding in nearly 40 years. Thousands were evacuated, a number of lives were lost, and damage to homes and businesses is said to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Given that floods are the most common natural disaster in the United States, could we be doing more to predict them and safeguard flood-prone communities?

“We are continuing to improve flood forecasts but we have more work to do,” said Chris Duffy, Penn State professor of civil engineering. There are several key problems, he noted.

One issue is that “many models still do not adequately take into account the physical landscape features or land-use changes that shape the flood response,” said Duffy.

Much of today’s flood prediction technology relies on computer models created by simulation software that can be customized to a region’s rivers, floodplains, and urban features. These programs use “flood routing algorithms”– mathematical formulas for predicting the changing magnitude, speed and shape of a flood wave along a river — as their main predictive tool. Yet, “Models cannot be expected to perform well unless they are based on the best historical data,” reminded Duffy.

“One of the serious problems,” he said, is the continued loss of that data. “The United States Geological Survey (USGS) has a hard time convincing Congress to maintain funding for the national network of streamgages,” a system with over 7,000 devices in American rivers that measure real-time water levels and transmit data back to USGS every few hours. “State and local governments also are cutting back on support for this network,” Duffy added.

The best flood forecasting is costly, he acknowledged. “Some areas of the country are adopting new technologies to gauge river flow based on acoustic and radar methods. However, these methods require an investment which seems to be hard to come by.”
Typically, Duffy notes, flood prediction methods have focused on the main stems of the largest rivers, while overlooking the tributary networks where flooding occurs, and where flash floods threaten lives and property.

“It is my opinion that we will not improve flood and drought prediction in the U.S. until we begin to look beyond the stream and include measurements that tell us about the state of the entire watershed,” he said. “We must look beyond the point where flooding takes place to see what happened upstream in the watershed. New measurements for soil moisture, groundwater levels, coordinated with current rainfall radar and stream measurements would greatly improve our ability to forecast.”

Said Duffy, “At Penn State researchers are attempting to develop the next-generation forecasting tools that take a more scientific approach to flood/drought forecasting. These models will include spatial features of topography, land-use, and vegetation, incorporating satellite data and new watershed instrumentation as part of a Critical Zone Observatory funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, and the Environmental Protection Agency.”

Predicting floods more accurately is not our only task, reminds Duffy. We can also do a better job with our urban and land use planning. “The land surface is the interface between the atmosphere and the soil and subsurface,” he explained. “When we change that surface by making it less permeable or less able to store rain water temporarily in the soil or groundwater, we change the likelihood for surface flooding,” he noted. “Local floods due to poorly designed culverts can get you just as wet as a large river flood.”

The Susquehanna is a good case in point, said Duffy. “The physiography of the watershed of the river basin, along with shallow bedrock rivers that want to spread out and leave their banks, has always been recognized.” What is often not recognized, he pointed out, are the impacts of land-use changes (such as dams and pavement) that have altered the water cycle and changed where the water goes. “I think the best thing we can do is to educate the public on the scientific basis for the water cycle, including all its uncertainty.”

Chris Duffy is professor of civil engineering in Penn State’s College of Engineering, cxd11@psu.edu.

For more Probing Questions and other features about research at Penn State, subscribe to Research/Penn State: http://www.rps.psu.edu/subscribe or follow us on Twitter @PennStateRsrch. This article is provided by Penn State Live