On previous posts and website updates, I have covered themes pertaining to the learning process as well conditioning learning factors, like mental health. But learning also requires the capability to discern between sources. It is not difficult to imagine there are innumerable articles, posts, and even scientific journal articles of questionable origin. Likewise, the media often distorts scientific findings. For this matter, in this blog post I exemplify this incongruence, by presenting the strengths and weaknesses of a mass media article that is based upon a scientific journal paper from a reliable source.
Mass media article:
Scientific journal article:
The Importance of Accurate Interpretation of
Scientific Findings in the Media
Living in an era where technology has facilitated widespread communication requires that those responsible for the distribution of information ensure it is done in a precise and ethical manner (Comer, 2015), yet there are innumerable instances where knowledge is altered as it transitions from the original source to the receiver. The present essay illustrates how scientific findings can be distorted as they are presented to the general public in a mass media report.
A published, peer-reviewed scientific article from 2018, titled Associations between screen time and lower psychological well-being among children and adolescents: Evidence from a population-based study, deals with the issue of electronic devices and television, and their association to the mental health of under-aged individuals, who are considered particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of these gadgets. More than 40,000 American children and adolescents were indirectly analyzed in this study, by surveying their caregivers, to determine their level of well-being in relation to how many hours they spent watching TV or accessing electronic devices during weekdays. Researchers found that, after one hour of use, more hours of daily screen time related to lower psychological health (characterized by less curiosity, lower self-control, more distractibility, less emotional stability, more difficulty making friends, and reluctance to being taken care of), as well as an increasing history of depression and anxiety. This association was greater among adolescents than in younger children (Twenge & Campbell, 2018). The British mass media article that attempts to recount the findings in this study, Smartphones and tablets are causing mental health problems in children as young as TWO by crushing their curiosity and making them anxious, presents the findings in the context of Britain’s so called ‘zombie’ children, who spend an average of five hours a day using electronic devices (Blanchard, 2018).
In general, the mass media article does a fair job warning the public of the dangers that excessive electronic device use could have in the mental health of children and adolescents. It is backed up by commentaries from the study’s authors, and includes recommendations given by the American Academy of Pediatrics on the maximum number of hours children and adolescents should spend watching TV and using portable electronic devices. Nonetheless, the mass media article has major pitfalls, as it distorts important study findings. For one thing, it hastens at finding a causal relationship between the variables ‘screen time’ and ‘well-being.’ Due to the cross-sectional design of the study, it impossible to determine if screen time leads to low well-being, if low well-being results in greater screen time, or if both tendencies can happen simultaneously. Then, the mass media article hurriedly concludes that just an hour a day looking at a device’s screen could damage mental health. This information is incorrect, as the scientific article it is based upon concludes that one hour or less of internet consumption does not seem to correlate with a deterioration in well-being. Even though in the study it was found that curiosity was lower even with one hour of screen usage, the decrease in curiosity wasn’t, as the news media article luridly says, ‘crushing’. In the study, curiosity was only slightly inferior than the other well-being survey items within the first hour of screen utilization and resembled the same pattern in deterioration with increasing hours involved using screen devices or TV. Also, the mass media article focuses only on the effects portable screen devices supposedly have on well-being, yet the study’s survey was in fact unable to discern between portable screen device use and TV use due to its design. Lastly, the mass media article fails to mention scientific evidence in favor of electronic device use, or studies that don’t find a negative association between portable screen device time and well-being.
An appropriate way to improve the mass media article in question would be to have it revised by editors with a background in science. In other words, people knowledgeful of research theory as well as statistics would be able to interpret scientific findings more accurately and should work alongside the mass media article editors in assuring the final product is clearly understood and precise. Another way to meliorate this science mass media article would be to have it reviewed by the authors of the study it is based upon. On a side note, it is advisable to reduce publication bias (the publication of a study not only because of how groundbreaking its findings are, but also due to how appealing the results could be in the public eye, hence bringing more attention to researchers, increasing revenues for the media, and potentially promoting the researchers’ funding) of scientific journal articles in the first place, by submitting them for peer reviewing without showing the study’s results (Gebelhoff, 2016). In doing so, the number of biased mass media articles would consequently decline in their own accord.
It is pertinent to mention that the authors of mass media articles, such as the one under consideration, can fall in the habit of giving their writing a sensationalist approach, with the intention of attracting a greater audience. Writers of mass media articles based on scientific knowledge should abstain from this practice, as it can turn crucial, potentially life-changing facts biased and misleading, which might have a serious negative impact in people’s lives. To put this in perspective, stating that screen devices will only provoke irreparable harm in the well-being of children and adolescents, could potentially dissuade caregivers from allowing youths the opportunity to gain advantage from the virtues these technologies also possess, such as serving as powerful didactic tools. This is a paramount reason to demand rigor in the media’s portrayal of scientific findings.
Blanchard, S. (2018, November 2). Smartphones and tablets are causing mental health problems in children as young as two by crushing their curiosity and making them anxious. Daily Mail. Retrieved from https://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-6346349/Smartphones-tablets-causing-mental-health-problems-children-young-two.html
Comer, R.J. (2015). Abnormal Psychology (9th edition). New York, NY: Worth Publishers.
Gebelhoff, R. (2016, August 17). The media is ruining science. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/in-theory/wp/2016/08/17/the-media-is-ruining-science/?utm_term=.1fc0c271ad2c
Twenge, J.M., Campbell, W.K. (2018). Associations between screen time and lower psychological well-being among children and adolescents: Evidence from a population-based study. Preventive Medicine Reports, 12, 271-283. doi: 10.1016/j.pmedr.2018.10.003