CLASS OF 2024: Meet the researcher partnering with teens to create digital health and happiness

Click through the Instagram scroller below to hear from Rachel.

By Amy Wolf
The internet and social media are fun and scary, inspiring and draining, supportive and sometimes addictive. In this dizzying online world, Vanderbilt doctoral candidate Rachel Hanebutt is a guide, using research and partnerships to turn social media uncertainty into social flourishing.

Rachel Hanebutt, Community Research and Action Program (John Russell/Vanderbilt)

The key to her work is partnering with the very teenagers she wants to help.

Rachel Hanebutt with #HalfTheStory Teen Advisory Board (Submitted photo)

“Teens in my groups are coming to me with what they experienced just five minutes ago online, and we’re able to create solutions and a path forward for them to think about their use differently,” said Hanebutt, who also has a master of education degree from Harvard.

Using skills she’s honed through community-engaged research with the Center for Advancing Racial-Ethnic Equity directed by Velma McBride Murry, Hanebutt has found that, “teens not only love to be a part of the research process and learn a lot from it, but they also are really the experts of their own lived experience.”

“Rachel’s line of research expertise is timely given the urgent need to identify effective ways to enhance digital use efficacy and help address the escalation of anxiety, depression and social isolation, which are urgent issues receiving national attention by our surgeon general,” said McBride Murry, University Distinguished Professor of Health Policy and of Human and Organizational Development.

“I have learned a lot from her about ways to flip the switch in terms of addressing digital use, as it has historically been viewed as a negative influence on youth’s development rather than a platform to promote wellness. Her work has stretched my thinking,” McBride Murry said.


Through a community-engaged research partnership, Hanebutt leads the research arm of the youth-based digital advocacy and empowerment platform #HalfTheStory.

#HalfTheStory was created by Larissa “Larz” May, BA’16, when May was an undergraduate at Vanderbilt, going through mental wellness challenges related to internet overuse and unfiltered social media. May realized that for many, social media was only sharing half of the story.


Using her expertise in teen-centered methods, Hanebutt leads a teen advisory board with young people around the country. She conducts research to make sure the work #HalfTheStory is doing is evidence-based and the programs being designed have the intended impact of helping empower the next generation of digital citizens and give them the tools they need to live better lives online.

“When I met Larz at Vanderbilt, she helped me understand the gap in this social media space and that we can be in schools and online, talking to teens about social media issues that directly impact them and helping parents understand what the heck is going on online with their kids,” she said. “Being able to contribute to that makes my work as a scholar just so much more meaningful.”

Velma McBride Murry, Rachel Hanebutt and Hasina Mohyuddin (Submitted photo)

“I want to help teens to understand that they can have control online, and that in this vast world of technology, they are able to have a say despite the algorithms and the platforms that try to control their lives or their actions-that they can take some of that control back,” she said.


Rachel Hanebutt and her mom, Julie Vaal Hanebutt (Submitted photo)

Hanebutt is the oldest of five siblings. She jumped into just about every form of social media as a way to stay connected with her family. Those online connections and her interest in studying relationship dynamics were the initial spark for her research.

She is deeply grateful to her mom for building her confidence to follow her dreams.

“Going from a small town in rural Indiana, a first-generation college student, to now being almost a doctor is just-it’s one of the greatest things I could have imagined for myself,” she said.





“Daring is really going beyond what IS in order to create a better, brighter and bolder tomorrow. Dare to grow is putting yourself in a position where you can make mistakes and you may not know exactly what the next steps are. Being able to do that here at Vanderbilt means having great faculty to bounce ideas off of and provide support and having other students who are just as daring and bold as you are.”


“The impact I really want to make is to help people understand that research is something that helps society to be better. And that by working in partnership with researchers, with academics, and really understanding that we are here to help make sense of this crazy world that we all live in and to help everyone have a better experience.”


“Vanderbilt is an inspiration and innovation incubator. We all come here with these amazing ideas and dreams. But being able to truly let these ideas incubate together and meet collaborators and get advice while taking rigorous classes, all of those things jumbled up together allows those ideas to truly become so much bigger and better than what we came here with.”

Rachel Hanebutt with her husband, Kyle, and her dad, Clint, on a tour of campus (Submitted photo)
Watch “Four with a ‘Dore” below to hear more from Rachel.
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