Oh the shame of it! Our children are turning into anti-social, myopic monsters because of their addiction to smartphones, tablets and laptops. Guess what? It is all BS.

It seems that not a day goes by without another “expert” lamenting how the modern technology of mobile computing devices are ruining our children. Video games make them more violent. Social media actually makes them anti-social. Pediatricians warn that the seemingly endless amount of time they spend glued to their screens is corrosive to their health.

What does science really tell us? Better buckle up because the facts are not what you have been told.  A recent comprehensive study by Oxford researchers found that digital technology use was associated with a measly 0.4 percent of the variation that disrupts adolescent well being, For context, eating potatoes is associated with nearly the same degree of effect and wearing glasses has a more negative impact on adolescent mental health.

What goes on here? Why have we been led to believe that there are insidious effects on our youth from too much “screen time”? Yearly, the National Institute on Drug Abuse conducts the Monitoring the Future Survey. 12th-graders are asked more than 1,000 questions since 1975 and eighth- and 10th-graders since 1991. This has yielded a database of over 350,000 adolescents.

The survey asks teens how happy they are and also how much of their leisure time they spend on various activities, including nonscreen activities such as in-person social interaction and exercise, and in recent years, screen activities such as using social media, texting, and browsing the web have been added.

Many of the horror stories like those of Jean Twenge’s book about the dreaded iGen, as she calls them (iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood—and What That Means for the Rest of Us) is based upon some of this data. The trouble is as Mark Twain popularized the phrase: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics.”

While the database is a valuable resource it is susceptible to researcher bias, said Andrew Przybylski, the experimental psychologist at Oxford and his graduate student Amy Orben, who co-authored the new paper. To prove their point, they found over 600 million possible ways to analyze the data contained in the three data sets in their study (one of which is the Monitoring the Future Survey). “Unfortunately, the large number of participants in these designs means that small effects are easily publishable and, if positive, garner outsized press and policy attention,” they wrote.

To overcome this potential for bias the researchers conducted a Specification Curve Analysis (SCA), a tool that examines the full range of possible correlations and maps the sum of analytical decisions that could be made when analyzing quantitative data. Rather than report just a handful of results SCA reports all of them. It is the statistical equivalent of seeing the forest for the trees. “It’s about setting a standard,” Przybylski says. “This kind of data exploration needs to be systematic.”

This type of research intends to modify the status quo. “We’re trying to move from this mind-set of cherry-picking one result to a more holistic picture of the data set,” Przybylski says. “A key part of that is being able to put these extremely miniscule effects of screens on young people in real-world context.”

And yet again, in another study with over 3000 participants researchers at the University of York found no evidence to support the theory that video games make players more violent.

Technology introductions always have had an impact on its users and society as a whole. But, we must be careful not to jump to “intuitive” conclusions. Believe it or not, at one time pundits were worrying that the introduction of calculators would dumb down our children because they would loose the ability to manually do math. Sound a bit silly now but it points to the need to do real research.

Ironically, one of the side effects of our latest technology is the vast amount of data generated for researchers. Unfortunately, most of that data is considered proprietary to Facebook, Amazon and Google. But there is hope. A couple of academics have launched Social Science One with the aim of forging partnerships with the tech behemoths in order to foster access to this wealth of data and a better understanding of its social impacts.

Let’s face it we can’t unring this bell. Screens – or what ever they transmute into – are going to be with us for a long time. We better get a handle on what their real impact is and can be.  

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