Another dot in the blogosphere?

Reading beyond headlines 2

Posted on: July 1, 2021

Barely a month (week?) goes by without headlines about the link between using mobile device and some harm, e.g., poor mental health. We do not call those headlines a form of gaslighting because so many of us have bought into them.

Thankfully, this critique, Flawed data led to findings of a connection between time spent on devices and mental health problems, bucks the trend. That article summarised recent research and concluded: 

…simply taking tech away from (young people) may not fix the problem, and some researchers suggest it may actually do more harm than good.

Whether, how and for whom digital tech use is harmful is likely much more complicated than the picture often presented in popular media. However, the reality is likely to remain unclear until more reliable evidence comes in.

The thesis of the article: “The evidence for a link between time spent using technology and mental health is fatally flawed”.

The thrust of the article was that studies in the area of mobile device use and harm relied on self-reporting measures. It then argued how such measures were logically and methodologically flawed.

First, we do not pay attention to what we do habitually. Such activity is background noise, not foreground work. As a result, it is difficult to accurately remember how frequently we use mobile devices or apps.

Next, the author shared how he and his colleagues systematically reviewed actual and self-reported digital media use and discovered discrepancies between the two. He also outlined his own research of using objective measures like Apple’s screen time app to track device use. He concluded:

…when I used these objective measures to track digital technology use among young adults over time, I found that increased use was not associated with increased depression, anxiety or suicidal thoughts. In fact, those who used their smartphones more frequently reported lower levels of depression and anxiety.

The author revealed that he used to be a believer of what the popular media peddled about the harm of mobile device use. But his research revealed that the popular media were simplifying complex findings: 

The scientific literature was a mess of contradiction: Some studies found harmful effects, others found beneficial effects and still others found no effects. The reasons for this inconsistency are many, but flawed measurement is at the top of the list.

We cannot simply read headlines, form conclusions, and craft far-reaching policies of mobile use, e.g., limit kids of age X to Y minutes of iPad time. Why? The measurements for the evidence of harm are flawed and the results of studies are mixed. 

We need to be critical readers, thinkers, and actors. We could start by reading beyond the headline, i.e., actually read the whole article and not propagating articles without first processing it carefully. This is more difficult to do than casually sharing a link, but it is a vital habit to inculcate if we are to be digitally wise. And with most habits, doing this gets easier with practice.

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