There is a horrible article making the rounds right now from HuffPost written by the new self-appointed leader of the “Save the Children” crusade, Cris Rowan. And this time, she’s after our iPhones! Get the pitchforks Cleetus, we’re gonna have an angry mob!
I feel horrible for even doing this, because rule number 1 of the Internet is “Don’t Feed the Trolls”. Still, if you want to see what bad science looks like when it’s covered in citations you should go read this article (nostrikethat, 2014).
The short version (although it’s hard to summarize a listicle) is that “technology” is destroying the brains of our children and OH GOD WON’T SOMEONE THINK OF THE CHILDREN? Technology is defined as “cell phones, internet, iPads, TV”(The stupid article, 2014), which is good because I would hate to have to rip out my toilets. Lucky for the Nostrikethat household, Poop Vanishing Technology is exempt!
There are many things wrong with this article. There is hysteria. There are selective readings of research. There’s entirely too much source citation for HuffPost, which, let’s face it, is not known for it’s scholarly crowd, considering the most popular article right now is about “Hot Facebook Mom”.
It was the ol’ “beating me to death with the APA style guide” that set off my BS detector. Like when people use the word “utilize”: consciously or not, they’re trying to puff themselves up a bit, to inject some credibility. Or, like when a guy tries to grow a beard to seem older and wiser, when he’s really just a horrible mess of a human being and is trying to exert some control on a seemingly random existence.
Which is totally not what I’m doing.
What I am doing is rolling through all ten points, because I needed to write something today and opportunities like this don’t come along very often.
1. Rapid Brain growth
The claim is that overexposure to technologies (again, “cell phones, internet, iPads, TV”) “overstimulates” the brains of children, causing a whole host of Bad Things. A few problems with this claim. First, the source cited is from April of 2004. In 2004, this is what state of the art looked like:
So the definition of “technologies” can really only mean TV, because that’s the only one that was INVENTED when the study was completed.
Second, the actual study itself only applies to TV.
You might also be interested to know that “technologies” are associated with tantrums in children.
As are Cheerios with milk on them and not in a separate bowl.
And getting out of bed.
And putting on pants.
Really, pretty much anything that happens in the vicinity of children is associated with tantrums.
Oh no, my argument has been undone.
This entry sets the modus operandi for the rest of the article. First, a fact is presented– in this case, children’s brains triple in size between zero and 2. Then, a claim is placed ever so gently next to the fact, so some of that magic Truth Pollen can flake off on to it. The rest is, as my professors used to say, left as an exercise for the reader.
2. Delayed Development
“Technology use restricts movement” she clai-wait, what?
No it doesn’t. You can’t just put a claim like that out there and act like it’s common sense, and therefore true. First of all, have you ever seen a small child jump on the couch while watching TV? It is the most frustratingly exhausting thing ever. In fact, while we’re making spurious claims, I’m going to claim that the existence of the phrase “FOR THE TWELFTH TIME, STOP JUMPING ON THE COUCH” disproves this point.
Second, she makes the claim that the use of technology by children under 12 is detrimental to child development and learning by citing the noted expert, herself.
SHE CITES HERSELF.
The supporting research she cites to support her claim… is her research.
This is occasionally allowed in academia if one is a recognized expert in the field, but unfortunately I think the only person that really recognizes Ms. Rowan’s expertise is Ms. Rowan, and the field is a cow pasture.
This whole line of reasoning sounds suspiciously like my toddler trying to convince me he can have potato chips… because he can have potato chips.
3. Epidemic Obesity
Ah yes, the old “TV makes us fat” claim, gussied up for the modern age. It’s never really been that terrifying (possibly because we learned it while watching TV) so it was due for an overhaul, I guess. Here’s the problem with this claim.
It is absolutely impossible that this claim is true.
No amount of screen time will generate calories in humans.
If there is one thing the fractured world of food science can agree on, it’s that eating food “is associated with” gaining weight.
Will staring at a screen all day make you feel like a lazy fat slob? Absolutely…but, and this is a crucial point, it won’t make you actually fat. You’ll feel horrible and you’ll have a whole host of other medical problems associated with a sedentary lifestyle, but the act of sitting on your arse all day doesn’t make the fat appear, it’s the eating-more-Fritos-than-the-energy-you-expend-clicking-the-remote that’s making the fat magically appear on your waistline.
Or the insulin-imbalance-from-over-consumption-of-refined-sugars.
Or practically anything else.
God– if He wants to smite thee in slow motion.
Life is hard enough when you’re a fat kid, now you’ve gotta be fat and bored too?
4. Sleep Deprivation
Ms. Rowan employs a different device here. First we are numbed with statistics: 60% of parents don’t monitor technology, and 75% of children are allowed technology in their bedrooms. Then, cite a study (from Boston College) that states 75% of children ages 9 and 10 are sleep deprived to the point where their grades suffer. You see the connection right? They have technology in the bedroom, and this proves that technology is causing them to not get enough sleep!
The citation was a little harder to dig up, but the source she cites is a BBC article reporting on the Boston College study. She omits one crucial bit of reporting, however. “What the study does not show is why young people are missing out on sleep“.
Here’s another, equally likely explanation:
9 and 10 year old children in industrialized nations have two parents that work, so they don’t get home from daycare until 6, don’t eat dinner until 7, then spend two hours doing homework, and then spend an hour actually talking to their parents and going to bed at 10, so they can get up at 6 the next morning so the can be dropped off at before-school care again.
Or you know, iPads are bad.
5. Mental illness
The claim is that technology overuse is “implicated as a causal factor in rising rates of child depression, anxiety, attachment disorder, attention deficit, autism, bipolar disorder, psychosis and problematic child behavior (Bristol University 2010, Mentzoni 2011, Shin 2011, Liberatore 2011, Robinson 2008).” Sounds serious, and there are 5 citations!
The Bristol University citation leads to a web page describing a report published in the American Journal of Pediatrics. So far so good, this one might check out! Then we get to this gem in the source: [emphasis mine]
“According to the activity monitor, the children in the study who spent more time sedentary had better psychological scores overall. Those children who did more moderate physical activity fared better in certain psychological areas, including emotional and peer problems, but fared worse in some areas related to behaviour, including hyperactivity.”
According to the article, sitting still makes your kid less crazy. Seems true enough, when the kids sit still it makes me less crazy, and I don’t see why I should get all of the psychological benefit.
Now I’m not going to go so far as to make an actual claim, but I have a hypothesis that sitting still correlates more closely to technology use than exercising, excluding Facebook-obsessed Run-My-Map-heads.
Then it says [again, emphasis mine] “Lead author Dr Angie Page from the University of Bristol’s Centre for Exercise, Nutrition and Health Sciences said: ‘Whilst low levels of screen viewing may not be problematic, we cannot rely on physical activity to ‘compensate’ for long hours of screen viewing.'”
Honestly, I didn’t bother to read the rest of the cited sources. I think the damage has been done here.
Something something Grand Theft Auto V something something.
Why don’t video game critics understand that games have ratings on them, and they actually mean something? Grand Theft Auto is rated “M for My God I can’t believe she trotted out a game made for adults as an example of violent media for children”.
There is actually some very good research behind the consumption of “violent” TV, Films, and Video Games and how it provably affects girls and boys by making them behave more aggressively. The mistake Ms. Rowan makes is conflating the media with the medium.
While I do sometimes want to reach through the TV and sucker-punch Elmo (possibly due to my consumption of violent media), I haven’t observed that reaction in any of my children. Nor am I surprised when the little boy doing karate chops and flying kicks in the super market is wearing a Power Rangers jacket.
None of these observations, though, mean we should ban technology use in children. If we’re going to invent imaginary pointless bans to support, why not ban the violent shows that lead to agression? In fact, I would support a ban of all youth programming that’s not Teletubbies, except that I think it would lead to an across the board increase in pot brownie consumption.
7. Digital dementia
The claim is that the technology gives us the ADD. Again, the weakness is that studies are cited to make a claim that is not supported by the study.
In this case, the key study is from 2004. “The objective of this study was to test the hypothesis that early television exposure (at ages 1 and 3) is associated with attentional problems at age 7“. Again, TV exposure, not exposure to all handhelds. Second, I found another study from 2006. The title? “There is no meaningful relationship between television exposure and symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.” Isn’t this fun?
Actually, this is kind of fun. On Ms. Rowan’s site there’s a link to another study by one of the authors of the 2004 study, Dimitri A. Christakis, MD, MPH that he published in 2011 called “The Effects of Fast-Paced Cartoons.” This is a great example of how academic papers always say “…and further research is required” — and then further research is performed. I would say that Dr. Christakis is actually an expert in this field, and here’s what he has to say in his 2011 paper:
“However, the quantity of media consumed has been an unduly emphasized part of the story. It is not that quantity is unimportant, but the effects of media are mediated more by what is watched than how much is watched.’ Simply put, television is both good and bad: there are good programs and bad ones. And, what makes programs good or bad has to do not only with the content itself but with what in communications research are known as the formal features of that content. Some sequences are naturally paced (eg. human-Muppet interactions on Sesame Street), and some are rapid (eg. SpongeBob SquarePants). Others occur in what seems like slow motion (eg, Mr Roger’s Neighborhood). In addition to the pace of the show, formal features include the edits and cuts. Some shows change scenes more than 3 times per minute, whereas others have greater continuity. The “overstimulation hypothesis” is based on the theory that the surreal pacing and sequencing of some shows might tax the brain or parts of it, leading to short-term (or long-term) deficits.”
So here’s the same expert cited by Ms. Rowan theorizing that the “what” that is being consumed is more important than the “how much” (let alone the “on what”), and is seeking to understand why.
He must not be credible after all!
Edit: After publishing this post in the wee hours of the morning, a few folks have commented that I missed #8 in the original article. Thanks y’all!
See #2, above (NST, 2014). Writing words does not make them automatically become true, even with liberal use of APA style.
This is the problem with signing yourself up to write a list article… you either end up with shifty list entries just to make it a “Top 10”, or else you get fed up and, halfway through writing, realize your idea wasn’t that good and it’s just easier to change the title to “Top 5” because no one will notice anyway.
Second, of all the claims one could make about addiction to technology (which is not really a thing), claiming:
“As parents attach more and more to technology, they are detaching from their children”
can only make you nod your head in agreement if you’ve never actually met a parent or a child. If that were true, teenagers all over the world would be begging their parents to spend more time on Facebook.
Third, as noted by alert comment-er and Hamlet-lookalike egthegreat:
SHE CITES HERSELF. Again.
9. Radiation Emission
This isn’t even a real reason, she’s just making a plea to THINK OF THE CHILDREN.
Don’t Feed the Trolls
Ms. Rowan is a far more successful blogger than I could ever dream of. She has succeeded driving mad crazy social media traffic, likes and shares. I don’t even make any advertising revenue from this site, because my lifetime site views are still in the 4 digits.
She drives attention like it’s her JOB. Which, if you read her bio from her site, it is:
“A frequent guest on both radio and television, Cris Rowan is a well known and impassioned speaker on the topic of the impact of technology on child development and learning. Cris has provided over 200 workshops to health and education professionals throughout North America, and authors the monthly Zone’in Child Development Series newsletter. Cris is CEO of Zone’in Programs Inc. offering products, workshops, training and consultation services to reverse the effects of technology on children. Cris is author of the following policy initiatives: Unplug – Don’t Drug, Creating Sustainable Futures Program, and Linking Corporations to Communities. Cris recently completed her first book Virtual Child – The terrifying truth about what technology is doing to children. Cris promotes the concept “Balanced Technology Management” where adults manage balance between activities children need to grow and succeed with technology use.”
Really, I have none of that. I’m not a CEO. I don’t have any workshops, products, or consultative services. I’m not terrified, and I certainly haven’t written a book about how not terrified I am…
I have a lot to learn. I need to pick something that a lot of people don’t understand, like technology, and figure out how it’s hurting children–because it has to, right? EVERYTHING hurts children (except Teletubbies).
Then I need to spend a lot of time on the internet doing keyword searches for articles that support my position, and put those into a list so I can tell people who disagree with me that I have “150 sources” that support me.
It doesn’t really matter that my sources, in some cases, don’t actually say what I’m saying they say, or even contradict my position– the important thing is I have a extensive bibliography, because nobody but grumpy old basement dwellers with erratic facial hair ever actually reads the source articles.
Then, I need to prostitute myself for clicks, because let’s face it we’re all prostitutes around here and I’ve gotta get mine.
Those speaking tours aren’t going to book themselves right?