Recently, fifth-year PhD lab member, Whitney, successfully defended her dissertation titled, The Impact of Dolphins on Children’s Mental Health: Longitudinal Analyses of Three Interaction Programs. Whitney conducted 3 separate studies where she analyzed (1) the impact of swimming with wild dolphins and whale watching on the psychological factors of children, (2) the impact of Wild Dolphin Assisted Therapy on children, and (3) the impact of differing lengths of captive dolphin interaction programs on children’s mental health and educational variables.
For the first study, she predicted that psychological factors such as social support, emotion regulation, empathy, posttraumatic growth (PTG), sense of awe, and knowledge of dolphin welfare would increase over time and show a greater change in participants of the dolphin condition rather than the whale watching condition. For study 1, she also predicted that the childrens’ heart rate would decrease more in the swim-with-dolphin condition than the whale watching condition. Whitney found that emotion regulation, sense of awe, and PTG changed over time for the children but more so in the whale watching conditions than the swim-with-dolphin condition, partially supporting her prediction. She also found that heart rate remained stable in the swim-with-dolphin condition and decreased in the whale-watching condition, not supporting her prediction.
For the second study, Whitney predicted that heart rate would decrease over the span of the 5-day program for the children along with stress levels. Meanwhile, she predicted that the childrens’ comfort in water and positive emotions would increase over the span of the program. Lastly, she predicted that the program would be perceived as enjoyable, as well as, helpful among the participants, and those feelings would carry on at least one month later after the program ended. Her results showed that heart rate decreased for some of the participants over the span of the program, partially supporting her prediction. She also found that stress and anxiety levels also decreased for some of the children, partially supporting her prediction. Overall, the children found the program to be enjoyable and helpful, fully supporting her prediction.
For Whitney’s third study, she predicted that educational and psychological variables would increase over the span of the program and continue for one month after. She predicted that the programs with a longer time duration would be more effective than the shorter programs. Along with that, she predicted that time touching the dolphins would influence the impact that the dolphin interactions had on the children, assuming that the more time touching the dolphins, the greater the changes will be. Lastly, Whitney predicted the children would find the program enjoyable and helpful. Her results showed that swimming with captive dolphins can aid with emotion regulation, knowledge of dolphin welfare, and heart rate but there is little long-term impact. She found that there were no significant differences between the program length’s effect on the children, except when it came to the perceived support from the parents. More time touching the dolphins did correspond with higher knowledge of dolphin welfare and overall, the participants found the dolphin interactions to be entertaining and enjoyable.
Overall, Whitney’s research shows that dolphin interactions programs are more than just fun, they can help with learning about the dolphins, increasing feelings of calm while decreasing stress and anxiety, and they provide feelings of social support. Her research leaves a lasting impact on considering dolphin interactions as a means of therapy for children undergoing stressful life experiences and daily hardships. Whitney has dedicated a significant amount of time and energy into her research, providing amazing results! We can’t wait to see what you plan to do next! Good luck, Whitney, and awesome job!