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.
If We’re All Addicts, Then What…?
But that’s okay, because Dokoupil eventually admits that the whole idea of Internet addiction is nonsense (and it reasonably follows that then so is his entire hypothesis):
And don’t kid yourself: the gap between an “Internet addict” and John Q. Public is thin to nonexistent. […] By that definition, we are all addicts now, many of us by Wednesday afternoon, Tuesday if it’s a busy week.
If “we are all addicts now,” then what is the point of a label of “Internet addiction” or suggesting that technology is making us all crazy?
Younger generations don’t see their relationship with technology in this completely negative light like Dokoupil and some researchers view it. Researchers continue to try and measure our relationship with technology with metrics and measures that have no connection to the modern world. They are attempting to define relationship quality, for instance, using old-school measures that weren’t designed to understand the complexity of modern relationships — some of which may be purely or primarily online.
But in a way, it doesn’t matter whether our digital intensity is causing mental illness, or simply encouraging it along, as long as people are suffering.
Of course it matters. Because when you frame it as an either-or proposition without the obvious third alternative — that what we’re measuring could be completely insufficient for capturing the whole picture — you make it sound like it’s a foregone conclusion that technology is “driving us all crazy” (as your headline reminds us). It’s not a conclusion — it’s very much an ongoing debate among academics and researchers who continue to engage in this topic.
It also depends on what you mean by “suffering.” If you mean, “people are in so much pain, they can’t live their daily lives in anything close to a normal fashion,” then I’d agree with you — those people need help.
The Flip-Side of the Coin: Positives of Being Online & Connected
Most people who use technology in their daily lives don’t “suffer” because of it. They have enhanced relationships with people, they’re more connected with others on a variety of levels than ever before, and the very nature and definition of what a relationship looks like and means to people is changing. Being online means we have ready access to information we never had before, which can potentially make us more productive and interactive in our daily lives.
Social networks don’t just take from us, they also give us an enormous amount of benefit. Some of that is subjective — we hook up with old friends, reconnect with past co-workers, and feel like we can more easily share our lives (via photos, status updates, etc.) with our personal network of friends and family.
But there’s also a lot of objective data demonstrating the effects of social networks — and what we can learn about them.
For instance, there are researchers who’ve found how the Internet has enhanced our relationships with others and ourselves. Nettleton et al.2 found our online contacts to be particularly valuable for esteem and emotional support that has generally been perceived to be provided mostly by relatives or close friends. Sanders et al.3 found that online interactions help people deal with their difficult emotions.
My colleague, Scott Caplan4 found support for his theory that individuals who lack self-presentational skill — for instance, people with existing low self-esteem — are especially likely to prefer online social interaction. This preference then reinforces continued Internet use because it’s a positive social interaction (versus the negative social interactions they may experience more of face-to-face). So from this theory, technology is simply providing a reasonable outlet for some people to interact with others — it’s not something that is “addicting” on its own.
Being accessible online has perceived benefits for those after a tragic accident as well. Research conducted after the shootings at Virginia Tech demonstrated that students enjoyed the perceived benefits of being able to reach out to their friends and others online.5
And that’s just a small smattering of the large research base demonstrating the positive effects of being online and connected to others. Dozens more studies show similar results. It’s not all negative after all, if one were really interested in showing both sides of the coin.
As the world around us is changing, and our relationship with technology changes with it, some people get nervous about that change, and cry out “The sky is falling” to the heavens, in hope it will stop.
It, however, won’t stop, because it’s the nature of our modern lives. You can no more stop our use of technology to enhance our lives than people could stop horse-drawn carriages from being replaced by loud automobiles in the early 1900s, or the invasion of TVs overtaking the radio in the 1960s.
Many researchers just seem absolutely flummoxed by how people will deal with this on their own. (Thankfully and coincidentally(?), many of them have written “helpful” books to guide us poor, lost souls.) Yet, throughout human history, whenever technology has changed the very nature of our relationships with one another, we’ve adapted. Yes, there were some difficult times in some of those transitions, but ultimately, humanity pulled through.
And we’ll do it again with the latest round of technology and mobile connectivity.
Newsweek’s Editors Asleep at the Wheel
But Dokoupil is not to blame entirely for this article. The editors at Newsweek — that is, if there are any remaining — must be asleep at the wheel. Because I used to believe journalists were supposed to research a topic, and present both sides of the story — even if they have a bias or the emphasis of the story is largely one-sided.
But this story doesn’t have the other side — it’s 100 percent, “Our relationship with technology is driving us crazy.” The Mindhacks story linked to below also describes how the writer just fell flat on his face with other fine examples. While we solicited Newsweek for answers to some of the questions we posed regarding this piece — the sloppy research, the lack of understanding research results (and later research that contradicted those results), the obvious bias and one-sidedness of the article — they declined to comment.
And that makes me respect Newsweek just a little bit less today.
Read the full, horrible Newsweek piece here: Is the Internet Making Us Crazy? What the New Research Says
For a more nuanced look, check out Mindhacks view: No, the web is not driving us mad
- 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. [↩]
- Nettleton S, Pleace N, Burrows R, Muncer S and
Loader B. (2002). The reality of virtual social support. In: Woolgar S (ed.)Virtual society?: technology, cyberbole, reality. Oxford: Oxford University Press. [↩]
- Sanders, C. Rogers, A. Gardner, C. Kennedy, A. (2011). Managing ‘difficult emotions’ and family life: Exploring insights and social support within online self-management training. Chronic Illness, 7, 134-146. [↩]
- Caplan, S. (2005). A social skill account of problematic Internet use. Journal of Communication, 55, 721-736. [↩]
- Vicary, A. M. & Fraley, R. C. (2010). Student reactions to the shootings at Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University: Does sharing grief and support over the Internet affect recovery? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36, 1555-1563. [↩]