Brian Primack, MD, PhD
By Glenda Graves | Portrait Photos by Meredith Mashburn
From 10-year-olds on Tik Tok to 74-year-olds on Facebook, it seems everyone is a part of social media these days. According to Dr. Brian Primack, social evolution hasn’t had time to catch up with the ever-changing social media scene. What’s trending today is canceled tomorrow. It’s a hard thing to navigate, especially when it can cause negative outcomes like depression and loneliness. But because there are positives that can come from its use, and because it is here to stay, Dr. Primack researched for years to compile a set of guidelines for using social media with lower chances of negative side effects. Those guidelines are in a book that will be published next month.
While Dr. Primack currently calls Fayetteville home, he lived a very interesting life in many different places before making his way here.
Brian Primack was born in New York City in 1969, but soon after moved with his family to East Africa where his father was doing public health work. His earliest memories are from Africa, but the time there was short-lived because of political unrest under the rule of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. The Primack family moved from Africa to the Washington, D.C., area.
Brian’s father was a cancer specialist and his mother was an attorney who worked on civil rights cases. “Both of my parents were immigrants and grew up with very little,” he says. “They met at Northwestern where my father was in medical school and my mother was in law school.”
After graduating from high school, Brian attended Yale University without a direct path or plan. “I had a lot of different interests,” he says. “I majored in English and math, and I was also interested in music composition. I never thought about medicine.”
His parents moved back to Africa — the west side this time — while he was in college and after his younger sister had graduated from high school. While visiting his parents in Africa, he met a principal of a school there who offered him a position as a teacher after his college graduation. Brian had already been spending his summers as a teacher in a program for junior high-age students and decided it would be a good opportunity. He graduated from Yale in 1991 and went to Africa. He ended up working there for a year while teaching math and physical education.
After leaving Africa, Brian began teaching at the University of Maryland in the remedial math program. “It was a very interesting job,” he says. “It was as much psychology as it was teaching. The students had been told that they weren’t good at math, and I had to change that perspective and empower them. One of the perks of being in this instructor position was that I got to take classes for free. I started to take science classes again. I was considering going into child psychology.”
It was at this point in his education that he became interested in the biology of the brain. After realizing this was more along the track of medicine than psychology, he decided to go to medical school at Emory University in Atlanta. After graduating from medical school, he went to Pittsburgh to complete his residency at a small community hospital. He explained, “The best family medicine programs are often at small hospitals where you can participate in every aspect of medical care. We delivered babies, we ran the intensive care unit, and we got to know the local community very well.”
Dr. Primack gives a TEDMED Talk about how principles learned from video game design can be used to create healthier behaviors.
After completing his internship, he joined the faculty of the University of Pittsburgh. He says, “I was older and had more life experience, specifically in education. I started doing the classic faculty job, combining clinical work, teaching and research.” Because of his earlier involvement with adolescents, he began to focus on media in his research. “At the time, social media wasn’t even a thing. So, I studied other media like television, video games and advertising. I was interested in whether media literacy might be an empowering way to deal with some of the negative effects of media.”
Dr. Primack continues, “Could we teach kids how to analyze what they see? Wagging our fingers or simply shielding them from it didn’t appear to be effective, and that kind of behavior could even make them rebel more.” The work he was doing was all about empowerment, especially for young people, to play on their natural development instead of against it. “I want to teach youth how to make their own decisions rather than just having someone tell them what to do. Young people need to be taught to analyze all the advertising and other media they see around them.”
He even created a Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health at the University of Pittsburgh. “I was linking my education background with these health topics,” he explains. “Our research results were good, so we continued to get more grants. I continued to teach and to see patients, but did more and more research. What I was researching was just as much social work as it was medicine, just as much psychology as it was biology, just as much education as it was sociology.”
When Dr. Primack learned about the position as Dean of the College of Education and Health Professions at the University of Arkansas, he had been in Pittsburgh for 20 years. He and his wife, Jen, were married in 2001 and had a son, Micah, and daughter, Sadie. He says, “I was in what I would say was a dream job at Pitt, and initially moving was not on my radar. But the position at Arkansas just seemed so tailor-made because of the combination of health and education. I also felt that there was such a sense of mission here in Arkansas. We have a state where there are gaps in education and health care, so this position just seemed like a great opportunity to make a difference.”
Dr. Primack speaks to College of Education and Health Professions faculty and staff at a Walton Arts Center welcome-back event in fall 2019.
Dr. Primack congratulates scholarship recipient Yuka Ogata, graduate in 2020 from the U of A athletic training program.
Dr. Primack congratulates scholarship recipient Yuka Ogata. She graduated in 2020 from the U of A athletic training program.
The three major missions of the College of Education and Health Professions are teaching, research and community outreach. Dr. Primack says he is hoping to strengthen these efforts, especially the community outreach. There’s no doubt he is following in the footsteps of his parents by giving back to others and creating a better world. It was with that thought in mind that he compiled the research for and wrote the book, You Are What You Click: How Being Selective, Positive, and Creative Can Transform Your Social Media Experience.
Dr. Primack says that he and his team were doing research on social media platforms as the platforms were coming out. “We were focusing mostly on substance use, because it kills so many people, and on mental health. We know there are links between having social media and negative mental health issues, but on the other hand, this social media can in some cases be a useful tool. A lot of what the book is about is trying to bridge the gap. How can we keep the benefits of social media while still reducing the risks?”
He explains that what he did with his book was to create the first “food pyramid” for social media. “Food is something where they tell us all the time what is bad. We can’t stop eating everything, but with the food pyramid, we know what amounts of certain foods are rational for us to eat, and that’s what I’ve tried to do with social media. I’ve always been interested in mental health, and I’m very much about empowering people to be critical users of social media.”
You Are What You Click: How Being Selective, Positive, and Creative Can Transform Your Social Media Experience will be available for purchase in early September. Even though most of the research for the book was done before the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Primack has many thoughts on how it impacted his area of research. “We were already on the way to more Zoom meetings; I think COVID worked as a catalyst for that,” he says. “In some ways that can be seen as a negative, because people are having less in-person interaction. However, social media and digital technology were an absolute lifeline for some people.”
Dr. Primack continues, “Even more so now, I think it’s important to start thinking about optimizing our use of social media so that we use it instead of it using us.”