Kristen Harrison, leading scholar on children and media, joins UNC Hussman as Richard Cole Eminent Professor

By Claire Cusick

Kristen Harrison, professor of communication and media at the University of Michigan, joins the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media on July 1, 2023, as the school’s Richard Cole Eminent Professor.

“We are proud to welcome Kristen Harrison to our UNC Hussman community,” said Raul Reis, dean of the school. “Kristen is an esteemed scholar focused on media psychology, particularly children and media. She adds yet another dimension to the school’s depth of faculty thought leadership across diverse disciplines. We are excited to call her our Carolina colleague.”

Harrison, who earned her doctorate in communication science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has been a full professor at Michigan since 2011. An expert in media’s effects on children, she has consulted with Sesame Workshop and PBS Kids, and her research has been supported by grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the William T. Grant Foundation.

The Richard Cole Eminent Professorship was endowed in 2004 with an anonymous $3 million gift to honor Cole, who served as dean of UNC Hussman from 1979 to 2005. Harrison becomes the school’s second Cole Professor with her predecessor Daniel Riffe having retired in 2020.

Harrison said she has been an admirer of UNC Hussman since she was a graduate student.

“I’ve always admired the school,” Harrison said. “I have tremendous respect for the faculty — they’re all heavy hitters in research — but also for the creative work, the journalism, the P.R. work, the production work.”

When deciding to go to graduate school, Harrison said, she chose research over a career in writing or media production. “There’s always been a part of me that misses rubbing shoulders with production people, because you can talk about media all you want in research, but none of what you’re saying is useful if you don’t understand what it means to be working in the media industry,” she said. “I look at UNC Hussman as a place where I can talk to people who are doing a wide variety of work relevant to media and learn even more about how these efforts fit together.”

Harrison’s dissertation adviser, Joanne Cantor, was part of a national research consortium called the National Television Violence Study. The legendary UNC Hussman Professor Emerita Jane Brown was also involved, and Harrison remembers revering Brown’s work.

“For 20 years after that, until Jane retired, when I would see her at conferences, she was so generous with her time,” Harrison said. “She was like a mentor to me, whether or not she intended to be.”

Harrison, who has advised doctoral students for 26 years, said she has tried to mentor students the way Cantor mentored her. When Harrison chose to study the media’s effects on body image and disordered eating, Cantor welcomed that topic as a chance to learn something new. “In the same way Joanne did with me, when I have students who want to study a topic that I don’t have time to study myself, or that isn’t my own top priority, I get excited about supporting them, because then I can help them make a name for themselves with their own research focus,” she said. “I get to learn from their work.”

This approach to mentorship was among the factors that impressed the search committee about Harrison, said Allison Lazard, E. Reese Felts Jr. Distinguished Associate Professor. “Dr. Harrison demonstrated a strong eagerness to guide, contribute and mentor in adjacent scholarship areas, which is key to our school with its diverse student research interests,” Lazard said. “She has given deep thought to mentorship – not only replicating a default ‘model’ career, but really thinking through process and guidelines for students and faculty on their individual career projection.”

At Michigan, Harrison served as director of the Family and Media Lab, which studies the role of screen media in family life and youth development. She plans to continue that work in Chapel Hill.

“Thirty years ago, when we studied children and media, families had a television in the living room, and they sat down and watched it, and when they weren’t watching it, they were doing quote-unquote the rest of life,” she said. “Now with mobile media, social media, and people self-branding through media – all this work takes place through media. One of the things that I loved about Jane Brown’s work is that she took an ecological approach. We don’t use media in a vacuum. It’s not just the child and the screen; everything influences everything else. That’s never been as true as it is now.”

The proliferation of social media has flipped the script on the way researchers think about people and their time with media, Harrison said. “Within the discipline, we used to separate mass communication from interpersonal communication. Each area had its own theories. Social media have combined it all. It’s really exciting the way new media technologies, policies, and outlets affect the way we theorize about human communication and the role of media. And that means there’s always something new to learn because there’s always technological development going on. And that keeps it interesting and keeps us sharp as researchers.”

Harrison is known for her interdisciplinary approach and anticipates opportunities for collaboration at Carolina. “One common thread through all of my work has been how screen media portray, interact with, and affect human bodies,” she said. “I define body pretty broadly in the sense of what people assume about our identities on the basis of the appearance of our bodies, and how interaction with media devices affects our bodies. This can range from sensory regulation to stereotyping and prejudice to messages about health and eating and how they influence our habits in ways that affect our health. Any unit or center at UNC that is connected with health or identity or bodies is going to be interesting to me.”

Harrison said she looks forward to learning from her new UNC Hussman colleagues.

“I’ve learned about Richard Cole and his long-term leadership of the school,” she said. “I understand that he was at the forefront of the school’s growth into one of the leading journalism programs in the nation. The school has been on my map since the ’90s, and I know there are decades of graduates out in the world who are doing amazing things. It’s a great place, and I think I’m lucky to be joining it, and I hope that I'll be a weight-bearing contributor to the vitality of the school and to its future.”