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Description: Here is a research-based claim you may have heard about recently. Jean Twenge, based on data she drew from several huge population (big sample) surveys, suggests that 5 or more hours of daily involvement with social media is having negative impacts on teenagers these days. Now, rather than thinking about whether you agree or disagree with this statement (you know the sorts of statement I mean here, “Kids these days……”) think about it as if you were a psychology researcher. What methodological and interpretive questions might you raise about the research itself in this area? Give that some thought and then read the article linked below to see some reflection and research focused on this question.

Source: Is Tech Really Hurting Teens? Devon Frye, Brainstorm, Psychology Today.

Date: February 22, 2019

Photo Credit: Darren Baker/Shutterstock.

 Article Link:

There is a concept that is typically presented early on in most basic courses on psychological research methods and statistics that basically cautions against data fishing. Data fishing involves asking research participants many, many questions and then pulling out and reporting upon only those answers or results that please you. The problem is that if you ask a lot of questions odds are that some will produce significant results by chance. The article linked above talks about a research paper that looked at the Twenge research from this perspective. Essentially, the population survey data sources Twenge drew here data from  asked many, many questions and so one could argue that she “fished” or “cherry picked” the data that suited her hypotheses. The researchers involved took a look at all of the possible comparisons that could have been made with the data gathered in the large surveys so they could properly characterize the magnitude and direction of the possible effects of social media use on anxiety among adolescents. They suggest that while there IS a negative impact of social media use on wellbeing it is not very strong and, in fact, comparable to the impact of eating potatoes on wellbeing. We can add to this the other observation that the data Twenge refers to is correlational and thus make it hard if not impossible to say whether social media use causes depression or that depression causes social media use. So, what do we do now? Well we do not simply conclude that social media use is either innocuous or peachy. Rather, we realize things are rarely simple and we dig in and think about and design more research into this important question. The rates of anxiety and depression and suicide ARE higher among teens and emerging adults born since 1994 and while social media IS a more ubiquitous part of their lives than of previous generations, we need to look both more closely psychologically and developmentally and more broadly socially and historically if we hope to begin to understand what is going on. So, yes, big surprise, more research is needed.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What might be problematic about the findings that high levels of social media use may be associated with higher rates of teen anxiety and depression?
  2. What should be done to sort out the concerns noted in possible responses to the first question?
  3. Are debates like this one more of a challenge to how research findings are reported or to how we think about them when they are reported upon, sometimes in rather sensationalistic manners, in the media?

References (Read Further):

Twenge, J. M. (2017). Have smartphones destroyed a generation. The Atlantic, 3.

Orben, A., & Przybylski, A. K. (2019). The association between adolescent well-being and digital technology use. Nature Human Behaviour, 1.

Twenge, J. M., Joiner, T. E., Rogers, M. L., & Martin, G. N. (2018). Increases in depressive symptoms, suicide-related outcomes, and suicide rates among US adolescents after 2010 and links to increased new media screen time. Clinical Psychological Science, 6(1), 3-17.

Heffer, T., Good, M., Daly, O., MacDonell, E., & Willoughby, T. (2019). The Longitudinal Association Between Social-Media Use and Depressive Symptoms Among Adolescents and Young Adults: An Empirical Reply to Twenge et al. (2018). Clinical Psychological Science.