I guess I need to stop believing the media can cover a topic such as humanity’s interaction with technology without bias. Newsweek provides one of the most biased, non-neutral pieces that I’ve seen ever written about technology, psychology and human interaction in last week’s paper issue (also available online).
Cherry-picking from only the research that supports his hypothesis — that technology is evil and making us all crazy — writer Tony Dokoupil doesn’t provide a nuanced, complex review of what researchers have discovered. Instead, he provides a sledgehammer-to-the-gut hit piece meant to infuse fear and continued ignorance into the complex findings in this area of psychological research.
And in an accompanying video piece, Dokoupil feels perfectly free to dispense mental health advice — as though by writing about the topic, he’s suddenly become a psychology or mental health expert.
So let’s dive in.
Throughout the piece, Dokoupil suggests both himself and Newsweek are serious about this topic, and that brand-spanking new research will help guide us in an objective review of “What the New Research Says” about “Is the Internet Making Us Crazy?” In suggesting over and over that Newsweek and the reporter spent time “analyzing” the research, Newsweek is leading its readers to believe they’ve actually conducted an objective, unbiased review:
The first good, peer-reviewed research is emerging, and the picture is much gloomier than the trumpet blasts of Web utopians have allowed. […] Does the Internet make us crazy? Not the technology itself or the content, no. But a Newsweek review of findings from more than a dozen countries finds the answers pointing in a similar direction.
So there’s the answer — “No.” But then the rest of the piece is spent telling you how the answer is actually, “Yes,” and here’s why. Don’t be confused by Dokoupil’s rhetoric here. There’s no search criteria for what studies they looked at, and there’s no claim they took an unbiased look at the research. They simply looked at what helps them sell a story and magazines, and found enough “new” research (apparently this is the new, more liberal meaning of the word “new,” since the author quotes research going back to 2006 and earlier) to write a story from.
Most of the research quoted in the article is the worst and weakest kind of psychological research — small case studies about one or two people, or small pilot studies the researchers themselves suggest should not be generalized to the population as a whole. Since Dokoupil is not a researcher, he apparently doesn’t care (or isn’t aware of the differences). To add insult to injury, he never lets the reader know that this is the kind of crappy research he’s mainly talking about in the article. In Dokoupil and Newsweek’s worldview, apparently all research is created equal.
But it gets worse…
His 2006 study of problematic Web habits (the one that was puckishly rejected) was later published, forming the basis for his recent book Virtually You, about the fallout expected from the Web’s irresistible allure.
Yes, I expect authors who publish — and make money off of — books saying the sky is falling due to our interactions with technology to give us a totally objective viewpoint. Larry Rosen, another book author quoted, is a colleague and I respect his opinion. But again, it’s just an opinion. Drawing broad sweeping conclusions about the real-world impact of technology from surveys you administer to a group of people and other research you cherry-pick from the literature isn’t exactly the equivalent of a randomized controlled trial — the type of study methodology we require in order for a new prescription drug to be approved.1
Hey, Let’s Scare You, Then Present Only One Side of the Story
Dokoupil also talks about a study demonstrating how technology “rewires the brain.” Nowhere in his description does he mention that a whole host of activities “rewire the brain,” from learning to drive a car or learning a new foreign language, to all sorts of childhood activities that mold us into young adults. Every action we take changes our brain chemistry. Instead, he just leaves it to the reader to understand that when “Web users displaying fundamentally altered prefrontal cortexes,” it is somehow bad — rather than just being different.
Dokoupil brings up the flawed Pediatrics Facebook study, which we thoroughly analyzed and discredited shortly after its publication. And although his piece was published after this study became available, a followup study also clearly demonstrated Facebook activity does not lead to depression after all.
As I wrote in the earlier article:
Other research has shown that college students’ — who are often older teens — Internet use was directly and indirectly related to less depression (Morgan & Cotten, 2003; LaRose, Eastin, & Gregg, 2001).
Furthermore, studies have revealed that Internet use can lead to online relationship formation, and thereby to more social support ([Nie and Erbring, 2000], [Wellman et al., 2001] and [Wolak et al., 2003]) — which may subsequently lead to less internalizing problems.
Dokoupil doesn’t just dismiss evidence contrary to his hypothesis — he completely ignores it, simply leaving it out of his story completely.
- The problems with surveys are numerous, but primarily, if you haven’t conducted a pilot study to ensure your questions are worded in an unbiased manner, how your questions are worded will usually determine the kinds of results you will get. [↩]