Social media ‘addiction’ – the evidence.

screen timeWhile most of us think of addiction as the physical and psychological dependence on a substance such as alcohol, cigarettes or any kind of drugs, the word has also been used for psychological dependence on behaviours like shopping, eating, gambling, and now screen time – especially the time that adolescents spend on social media. But what is the evidence for this?

Well, as everyone knows, when doing research, first of all the terms have to be operationalised.  Given that screens are multi-media, and the person could be reading a book, Skyping with a grandparent, watching a TED talk for their homework, contacting a friend, or posting their latest pics on Instagram, we need to be clear that it is time on social media that is causing the moral panic.  Though it is also worth noting that every time a teenager is seen staring at a screen, the assumption is always that they are on social media. In his latest letter to social media firms, Jeremy Hunt (UK Secretary of State for Health and Social Care) proposed a future where every child gets a state-imposed social media limit, similar to the alcohol units recommended by government. After a child surpasses a set cutoff point, their social media access is stopped for the day.

To implement such an extreme policy, scientific evidence of damage would be needed.  And this is where the problem begins:  the evidence is controversial.  Social media use has been found to be correlated with depression and  sleep disturbance  in young adults. The popular press has many alarming stories of permanent damage done to young people.

However, longitudinal studies of social media suggest that frequent social media use is generally associated with increases in self-esteem and empathy for adolescents.  As Professor Sonia Livingstone notes in her TEDx talk on how children engage with the internet, research suggests that little has changed in terms of youth mental well-being since the pre-internet era which makes the causal connection between internet use and lower mental well-being unwarranted.  Moreover, US statistics on crimes against children showed a significant decrease in physical and sexual abuse and neglect of children between 1990-2014, with sexual abuse (the crime most often associated in the public imagination with internet use) showing the biggest decrease.

All new forms of media, especially those used predominantly by young people, tend to disturb the equilibrium of older people.  Newspapers, radio, TV, video games and now social media all receive or have received negative attention and been blamed for a perceived decrease in moral values amongst the young. Socrates blamed writing for weakening memory, and allowing the pretence of understanding, rather than true understanding.

Later School Start Times Help Students

asleep-3126444_640It has long been suspected, and now research is supplying the evidence: delaying school start times results in students getting more sleep, and feeling better.  The most recent study in Singapore investigated the impact of a 45-min delay in school start time on sleep and well-being of adolescents.  They shifted the start of the school day from 7.30am (which though early is not uncommon in Asian countries) to 8.15am, without making the day end later.  After one month, researchers interviewed students and found that bedtimes on school nights were delayed by nine minutes while the times students got up were delayed by about 32 minutes, resulting in an increased time in bed of 23 minutes.  This may not seem like much, but the percentage of students getting at least 8 hours of sleep in the school week rose from 6.9% to 16%, and all reported more alertness and feelings of well-being.

These findings support studies from the USA and UK.  However, it has proved difficult to change practices, even in face of this evidence, and calls in 2015 by Paul Kelley of the Sleep and Circadian Neuroscience Institute at the University of Oxford, to delay the start of school and college in the UK for the benefit of students largely went unheard or unheeded.  Teenagers don’t get to make educational policy!

How to structure a short-answer question response on models of memory

MSM for blogHow to structure a 9-mark SAQ on models of memory (for the new curriculum, exams May and Nov 2019):

Describe one model of one cognitive process, using suitable research to support your answer. [9]

1 Introduce your model of memory – draw and label it. Say how it conceptualises memory e.g. as separate storage components; as a version of the STM etc.

2 Go into more detail on the model – what does it assume about memory? What does each component/aspect of it say about how memory works? DO NOT EVALUATE! Focus only on description and detail; expand your ideas, give examples.

3 Use ONE piece of research to demonstrate the model in action e.g. Serial Position Effect studies or the case study of HM for the MSM; dual-task studies or the case study of KF for WMM.

4 Expand on how the study you’ve used supports the MSM or the WMM. Be absolutely EXPLICIT in doing this, don’t leave any question marks or assume that the examiner knows what you mean. You should be LINKING BACK to the question throughout your answer, but particularly in your last paragraph

Word count – should be around 250-300 words. Use your time well – you only have 20 minutes to write this in an exam!

Emotion and memory


We all remember those special moments, don’t we?  The birthday party with the huge cake, or our first day at school, or when we broke our arm playing in the snow.  They seem as if they only happened yesterday, the memories are so vivid!

Many years ago, some classic research was conducted by Brown and Kulik (1977) into the phenomenon of what they called ‘flashbulb memories’:  memories of where we were when we heard startling news that had a strong emotional impact on us.  Their questionnaires and interviews suggested that indeed people did remember where they were and exactly what they were doing when they heard of President Kennedy’s death or the shooting of Martin Luther King.  Do you remember what you were doing when you heard of Michael Jackson’s sudden death? Maybe your parents remember where they were when the sad news of Princess Diana’s fatal car accident was broadcast?

However, later research showed how our flashbulb memories may not be so accurate as we think: one fault of Brown and Kulik’s method was that they had no independent way of checking the accuracy of their participants’ memories of where they were and how they heard the news.  Neisser and Harsch (1992) interviewed people one day after the 1986 Challenger Shuttle Disaster and again two-and-a-half years later.  One day after the event, 21% of participants reported hearing about the disaster on TV. But years later, 45% reported hearing about it on TV. Their memories of how they knew about the Challenger explosion had changed over time. Moreover, in the second interview, some of them reported being at certain events when they heard, despite such events not taking place at the time.  Neisser and Harsch concluded that although flashbulb memories are vivid and long-lasting, they are not reliable.

Test it for yourself – ask a person who was present when you both heard some shock news, and see how your memories coincide or how they are different.  You may be surprised!

Cognitive Biases

reflectionCognitive biases – distortions of reality

Cognitive biases arise from heuristics (shortcut thinking) and systematically distort the way we think and affect our decision-making. Three of the most common cognitive biases are confirmation bias, anchoring bias and  cognitive dissonance. All three arise from our tendencies to focus on part of a story, especially the part that confirms our pre-existing beliefs, and to avoid holding two inconsistent beliefs at the same time.  That is, we are selectively attentive, and filter out what we don’t agree with.

Confirmation bias – this is when we seek out information that tells us we were right all along! It affects the type of information we seek out, and also how we interpret neutral information that we meet along the way.  If I post on Facebook or Instagram and don’t get immediate positive feedback, I feel that people dislike what I’ve posted, and are ignoring me. I think we can all identify with this. We look for evidence that supports our pre-existing beliefs about ourselves, or others, rather than useful information.

Wason (1960) demonstrated the confirmation bias by giving British university students the 3 ascending numbers 4-6-8 and asking them to guess the rule he had used to devise the series. (It was simply ‘any 3 ascending numbers’.)  Students had to generate their own sets of 3 numbers, and ask if they conformed to the rule. Of course, they did, as any three numbers that were neither identical nor descending conformed, but this stopped them from isolating the rule. They were seeking evidence that confirmed what they thought, not evidence that refuted the rule, so it could be more easily identified. This is a mistake, as an attempt to refute the hypothesis would have given more clues to its true identity.

Anchoring bias – this is when we make estimates of a total or of a probability by starting from an initial idea, which ‘anchors’ us to it.  An experiment described by Tversky & Kahneman (1974) illustrates this:

Two groups of high school students estimated the total of a calculation written on a board. Group 1 estimated the product of  8 x 7 x 6 x 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x l while Group 2 estimated the product of 1 x 2 x 3 x 4 x 5 x 6 x 7 x 8.  The earlier numbers in the sequence acted as anchors for the expectations, and Group 1 estimated  a median of 2,250 and Group 2 estimated  a median of 512.  (The correct answer is 40,320 – I had to check it to believe it!)

Cognitive dissonance – if people cannot change their behaviour, then they change their beliefs about that behaviour, so there is less mis-match between belief and behaviour.  The best example of this is the young smoker who feels unable to give up.  They know that smoking causes cancer, but choose to believe it doesn’t do so in people as young and fit as them, who will, anyway, give up in the future.  They know it makes breath and clothes smell, so they keep to the social circle of other smokers and choose to believe that ‘smokers have more fun.’

Festinger et al. (1956) empirically tested this theory by conducting a covert participant observation study of a cult that believed the world would end at midnight on 21 December 1954. They alone would survive and start a new civilization, and for this, a spacecraft was coming to pick them up earlier on that night.  When the spaceship did not come and the world continued, then the cult members believed the world had been saved through their prayers.