What is actually behind the screen?

Ella Rhodes reports on a new parliamentary report from the Science and Technology Committee.

12 March 2019

News reports of the apparent dangers of children’s screen time and social media use are guaranteed to spark debate. Yet the research base has been described by some in the field as ‘a wreck’, plagued by poorly defined variables, a lack of causal data, and the cherry-picking of results to shore up ideological positions. Now a new parliamentary report from the Science and Technology Committee, which took into account evidence provided by psychologists and the British Psychological Society, has aimed to spell out the true state of the evidence in the area.

The committee, chaired by Norman Lamb MP, raised concerns over both the amount and quality of current evidence. UK Research and Innovation, for example, has called for more multi-disciplinary studies which are carefully designed and consider social media as part of a complex environment rather than as an isolated factor. This could reduce the reliance on correlational studies, which are unable to prove causation.  

The authors pointed out that ‘screen time’ is a rather nebulous concept, with Dr Pete Etchells (Bath Spa University) telling the committee that few studies had tried to differentiate between types of use. This makes it hard to know whether watching TV for an hour was any different to using social media or playing a video game for the same amount of time.

Psychology Lecturer Amy Orben (University of Oxford) suggested caution in reading results which appear to show a link between mental health and social media use. ‘Oftentimes, we do not find any effects. When we do find effects, they are extremely small. When we take the whole picture into account they become vanishingly small.’ Professor of Psychology Christopher Ferguson (Stetson University, Florida) pointed out that there was a failure in social science in outlining the difference between statistical significance and effect size. ‘Put simply, particularly with large samples, it is possible for some studies to achieve “statistical significance” but report effects that are so small or trivial that they would have little actual impact on children in the real world.’  

Director of the Oxford Internet Institute Professor Andrew Przybylski (University of Oxford) noted that social media companies are often unwilling to share data to improve the evidence base, despite collecting enormous amounts of personal information on users. He said such companies were potentially ‘indispensable partners for the large-scale transparent scientific investigations that will lead to actionable evidence-based policy insights.’ Technology companies, the authors recommended, should ‘make anonymised high-level data available for research purposes, to bona fide researchers so that a better understanding of social media’s effects on users can be established.’

While accepting the importance of improving the screen-time evidence base, the committee wrote that – given the concerns of parents, carers, teachers and others – it was still worthwhile to consider potential links between social media, screen use and the wellbeing of young people. It considered evidence of both the benefits and potential risks and harms of these new technologies. Many younger people have reported enormous benefits from using social media for keeping in touch with friends and family, and using the internet for education and tutorial videos, learning about other cultures, finding health advice, expressing their creativity, and activism. The report also points out a small amount of evidence that social media and screen use can affect the physical health of young people (although much of this research involved TV-watching alone).

Some links have also been found between social media use, screen time and poorer sleep in young people. However, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health found weak evidence that screen-time was associated with poor sleep, and Przybylski pointed out that people who tend to sleep worse may be more inclined to turn to digital devices rather than vice versa.

Meanwhile, writing in Vox, psychologist Brian Resnick talked to researchers about ‘why this field is so fraught and how it can be corrected’. ‘Simply put’, he concluded, ‘scientists need to be asking better, more specific questions, need to collect better data, and need to do it for all kinds of different mental variables.’ ‘The literature is a wreck,’ Anthony Wagner, chair of the department of psychology at Stanford University, told Resnick. ‘Is there anything that tells us there’s a causal link? That our media use behavior is actually altering our cognition and underlying neurological function or neurobiological processes? The answer is we have no idea. There’s no data.’

Some psychologists are calling on the tech companies to fill that hole, with Florence Breslin (Laureate Institute for Brain Research) telling Resnick: ‘Now that screen time is part of the operating system, there’s a lot of push in the research community [for] Apple to allow that data to be a part of its research toolkit.’ Access to this data from Apple (Google, Breslin says, is already on board), would allow researchers to figure out when and how children are using their phones without having to rely on self-report measures.

Others are calling for government funding, with the Science and Technology Committee report – while commending the government for its work in thinking about potential risks online – concluding that it should ‘address the current limitations of the evidence base by actively commissioning new research.’ The authors also suggested that education should catch up with the rapidly evolving digital world, with 2017’s Children and Social Work Act presenting an opportunity to include digital literacy and resilience in the curricula of primary and secondary schools. 

For more on the inquiry and report, see tinyurl.com/stcscreen

See also the symposium as part of this report.