Is it helpful to accuse parents of neglect when it comes to technology use?
In mid-March, I attended a debate held at the Royal Institution, on how journalists and scientists can better work together in order to avoid erroneous reporting on scientific issues. One of the take-home messages of the debate was a call for scientists to more rigorously watch their own neighbourhood, and highlight problem articles.
A number of news media outlets have picked up on a story today from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child health annual conference in Glasgow, with headlines ranging from the relatively moderate “Childhood ‘screen time’: Warning over TV and computers” through to the sensationalist and insulting “Mobile addict parents guilty of child ‘neglect’ warns psychologist”. The story comes from Dr Aric Sigman, who is giving a guest lecture entitled “Alcohol and electronic media: units of consumption”. In the various press reports on the lecture, a number of worries have been raised about electronic media use. I address two of these below. In doing so, I have tried to include relevant links to research, where appropriate. I would also like to add the caveat that this post is based on press releases in the media, and not Dr Sigman’s presentation, which, at the time of writing this, has not yet been given. As a result, if any of these points are erroneous, I would encourage Dr Sigman to report them to the relevant press outlets along with clarifications, and I will update this post accordingly.
1) From the Telegraph and Daily Mail articles: “A generation of young people is growing up with a virtual addiction to computers, televisions and smartphones with striking similarities to alcoholism” and “He will tell a group of Britain’s leading doctors today that the growing addiction could leave a generation suffering damage to the body as well as the brain.”
The question of whether or not one can become addicted to technology is a contentious one. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Disorders, which contains standard criteria for classifying mental disorders, does not currently contain any sort of classification for internet, technology or video game addiction. While that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist, it does mean there is no standardised way to assess it. In turn, that means that it is difficult to compare and amalgamate the research that has been conducted; if two papers show findings for and against the existence of such an addiction, and they use different measures of technology use and addiction, we can’t be sure whether an inappropriate measure in one study is the cause of their results.
However, the general consensus in recent years is that it is no longer appropriate to model technology addiction in the same way you would model alcohol or drug addiction; to do so simplifies the issue in a way that does not adequately capture the variability in the population of problematic users (see Shapira et al., 2003). A meta-analysis of research into internet addiction looked at 39 studies between 1996-2006, and noted numerous problems in data collection and analysis that in part boil down to inconsistent criteria being used to define addictive behaviour (see Byun et al., 2009). As a result, it is unclear where Dr Sigman is drawing his conclusions from – they do not appear to be based on recent research in the area. Certainly, as far as I am aware, there is absolutely no evidence anywhere that technology and new media use causes brain damage.
2) From the Daily Mail article: “The latest statistics show that 12 to 15-year-olds spend an average of more than six hours a day slumped in front of screens. Dr Aric Sigman wants TV banned for toddlers and severely rationed for other youngsters and will warn that parents who use technology as a ‘babysitter’ could be setting up their children for a lifetime of ill health. His work and studies by other researchers link time spent in front of screens with health problems including obesity, high cholesterol and blood pressure, inattentiveness and declines in maths and reading, as well as sleep disorders and autism.”
I can’t seem to find the source of these statistics, and would be grateful for further information.* However, I did find a report from Childwise, dated January 2012 (here). This survey notes that the number of children with their own TV set is currently declining, as is time spent watching TV (a reported 2.5 hours per day, on average). The report also notes that children ‘spend an average of 2.4 hours per week playing sport at school, unchanged since 2008’, but that ‘time spent playing sport out of school has fallen this year, to an average of 2.9 hours per week, down from 3.1 hours last year’.
There is evidence to suggest that average hours of TV viewing are correlated with negative health outcomes, such as excess weight (Hancox & Poulton, 2006), decreased hip bone mineral density in girls (Janz et al., 2001), as well as being a predictor of weight gain in adulthood (Ekelund et al., 2006). Based on these findings and others, recommendations have already been made in the scientific literature about limiting television time for preschool children (see de Decker et al., 2012).
Moreover, it’s worth noting that relatively little research has been conducted in the era of the Nintendo Wii, and recent studies (Graf et al., 2009) have shown that playing active video games actually increases energy expenditure in children – coupled with the apparent decreases that Childwise report in TV viewing, the sensationalist nature of the way Dr Sigman’s opinions are being reported seem unnecessary and unhelpful – particularly in regards to the link with autism. As Professor Dorothy Bishop has eloquently outlined before now, mentioning ‘links’ in this way implies a causal direction – that TV use, or internet use, somehow causes autism – and this has the potential to mislead the public and causes unnecessary anguish.
I have tried to highlight relevant articles above, but I must emphasise that the research literature on these issues is huge – a PubMed search for terms including “television use”, “social media”, “cognition”, “psychology” and “psychiatry” pulls up over 3,000 hits. Obviously not all of these are relevant, but they point to the complexities inherent in understanding how technology in its various forms affects us. New media is exactly that; new. Researchers are doing their best to figure out the effects of both short- and long-term use, but in the grand scheme of things we’ve really only just started. And while I think it is good to have a debate about this that engages the public, it is not fair to selectively pick research that highlights only one side of the discussion – as Dr Ben Goldacre notes, ‘cherry-picking’ sends (incorrect) messages out that there is consensus in the scientific community, or that there is overwhelming evidence for one side of the story. Dr Sigman himself has admitted to doing this before now, and today’s press releases seem to be in the same vein. To accuse parents of child neglect, as it appears Dr Sigman is doing in the media today, strikes me as scaremongering, and scientifically irresponsible. If you have a genuine concern about something that may have serious health risks, you have a duty as a scientist to outline those concerns objectively in a peer-reviewed academic research paper. Searches using PubMed and Web of Knowledge (academic article search engines) yield no results for any research by A Sigman on any of these issues; if anyone could point me to research that Dr Sigman has actually done in this area, I would be grateful.