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Teen studies her age group’s Covid resilience

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Some high school students have responded to the stresses of the coronavirus pandemic by hunkering down at home in front of a computer. Carmela Musso, 17, has taken the opposite tack.

The Brookville resident, a senior at Sacred Heart Academy, an all-girls private Catholic school, has done a year-long research study on the impact of internet addiction and spirituality on teen stress. The results were significant enough that the study has been chosen for publication in a national journal of psychology.

Musso’s study, entitled, “The effects of spirituality & technology usage on the resilience of students attending faith-based institutions,“ is soon to appear in the Walt Whitman Journal of Psychology, a peer-reviewed high school journal base at Whitman High School in Bethesda, Md.

“I’ve always been interested in why some people seem better at handling their stress than others,” Musso said. “And I’ve seen lots of my peers stressed about the same things. Technology has an impact on every part of life, so I assumed those with a higher level of technology addiction would be less resilient.”

Additionally, she said, she has noticed differing levels of spirituality among her peers. Some adhere to conventional religions, while others have a sense of “oneness,” a belief that some supernatural power controls all of the events on earth.

Using standardized measures, Musso designed a questionnaire that identified the presence of these two factors — internet addiction and spirituality — in a respondent, and then correlated those factors with the respondent’s reported success in dealing with stress. The questionnaire was distributed to 200 female students at Sacred Heart and Molloy College. Musso found that both factors significantly impacted resilience in the respondents.

“This study’s relevance in today’s society, where the normal stresses of the world are only amplified by the byproducts of the pandemic, cannot be overemphasized,” she wrote, “as it may help others develop better coping mechanisms.”

While the study has not yet been published, the editorial staff at the Whitman Journal of Psychology has already given it rave reviews.

“Carmela’s work on spirituality and technology should be the model for every aspiring psychological researcher out there,” said Gabe Shaner, student editor of the journal. “Her masterful research, communicated through clear and concise language, embodies everything our journal looks for in submissions.”

Publication in the Whitman Journal is no small achievement. Content is drawn from high schools around the country and selected by students at Bethesda High, and  only a very few of those who submit work are published. The journal has a sterling reputation.

“We started this publication about 30 years ago,” said Marisa diSalvio, faculty adviser to the journal. “At first we had studies submitted from a very few schools around the country, but with the advent of the internet, we began to get hundreds of submissions.”

Only a small handful showed promise, however. 

Teachers around the county eventually realized how rigorous the journal’s editorial standards were, and there were fewer than 50 annual submissions. Only a handful of the most intriguing and well-written of those make it through the peer-review process.

“Teachers are more selective now — they became better educated about the journal,” diSalvio said, “and they appreciate the value of being published in a scholarly journal.”

“Carmela is one of our shining stars,” said Dr. Stephen Sullivan, research director at Sacred Heart. “And there’s a certain irony in the fact that she studied student resilience in the middle of a pandemic. It took tremendous resilience on her part to do it. It’s hard to do any survey that involves questionnaires, particularly when she increased the sample size by including nursing students at Molloy College.”

In addition to this research, Musso has other notable achievements in the sciences, including having presented at the annual Association for Psychological Science conference in Chicago when she was a junior. “And I expect she’ll get to go to APS again,” Sullivan said, “which will make her one of only a handful of high school students ever to have gone twice.”

Musso plans to study chemistry at the university level next year, but she has diverse interests. She’s the captain of the speech and debate team at Sacred Heart, and  acts as a ‘big sister” to younger students. And for two years she has been president of the school’s Women in Health Care and Medicine Club, illustrative of her broader interest in female empowerment.

“During her tenure, the club has grown to over 100 participants,” said Dr. Beth Feinman, the club’s founder and a retired physician who is the chair of Sacred Heart’s science department. “Carmela has led debates on animal testing, and conducted presentations on epidemiology and cost rationing of health care resources.”

According to Sacred Heart Principal Dr. S. Jean Amore, the school’s commitment to the empowerment of women dates back to its 17th century origins in France. Sacred Heart is run by the Sisters of St. Joseph, also known as the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Josephs, a Roman Catholic religious congregation of women founded in Le Puy-en-Velay, France, in 1650. Their goal then remains the same now: “To build women’s leadership, but leadership with heart.”

Sullivan said he believed Musso had adopted the ethos of the school. “She’s an active leader,” he said. “Everything she does, she does wholeheartedly.”