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.

Online research

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Most of the studies you will want to read can be found online, but some will be behind what is called a ‘pay wall’.  This means that your school librarian should be able to help you with access, in that most school libraries will subscribe to at least one online data repository of resources.  However, that is no guarantee of availability, and you may have to do some online searching of your own.

The best place to start your search is Google Scholar, where you can type in key words, or the study title and authors, and a list of versions will come up.  If one of these is a ‘pdf’ then you are in luck.  If it is not, sometimes a site like Researchgate will have a pdf version for free. If they don’t, then they may have the abstract and, unlike other sites, if you join them (it’s free, and also spam-free) you can then request the full text direct from the author.  (This works for teachers, who can declare their interest in Psychology, but I am not sure if students would be able to join). I have put in 65 requests over the past few years, and received 12 texts, so while it’s not a sure method, it’s worth pursuing.

Finally, while most teachers will say steer clear of Wikipedia because of sometimes inaccurate information, the list of references at the end of the entry may prove very useful.  For example, it is well known that in 1986 researchers Yuille and Cutshall published research into eyewitness testimony of a crime that can act as a useful critique for Loftus and Palmer.  However, it is behind a pay wall, though may be requested through Researchgate.  But, if you go to Wikipedia and find Canadian psychologist John C. Yuille, scroll down and look at the references, you will find some that can be tracked and are freely available – such as this one on the effect of alcohol on eyewitness memory.  All of the hyperlinked articles at the bottom of Yuille’s Wikipedia page come up in PsycNET first, where they must be paid for, but by taking the article title and typing it into Google Scholar, or even into your usual search engine, the pdf can often be found.

This does take time, but once you have these items, you have them forever, which is a useful thought for teachers, or for students hoping to take their study of Psychology further. And if you don’t want all of your online searching to be tracked by Google, try using DuckDuckGo as a search engine.  Happy hunting!

What is a ‘key study’?

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Key studies are studies that are the most useful for any Psychology course, because they provide the ‘key’ to understanding a concept or theory.  For example, Maguire’s famous ‘taxi driver’ study, Loftus and Palmer’s ‘car crash’ study or Rosenhan’s research into the validity of diagnosis on admission to mental hospitals.

Teachers and students can benefit by summarising these studies according to Background, Aim, Participants, Procedure, Results, Conclusion, Evaluation.  This can be done on 1-2 sides of paper and kept to be used for essays, revision and even for HL Paper 3 practice if you are an IB Diploma teacher or student.  Below is a short example of what this could look like, from the biological approach.

KEY STUDY: Caspi et al. (2003) Influence of Life Stress on Depression: Moderation by a Polymorphism in the 5-HTT Gene.

 Background

Looked at the relation between inherited short alleles on the 5HTT serotonin transporter gene and incidences of stress and subsequent depression.

Links to:

  • Abnormal Psychology: Genetic explanation for inherited predisposition to depression as a response to environmental stressors.

Aim

To investigate whether a functional change in the 5HTT gene is linked to a higher or lower risk of depression in an individual.

Participants

The researchers used an opportunity sample from a cohort of participants who were part of another longitudinal study. There were 847 participants of 26 years old and they were split into three groups, depending on the length of the alleles on their 5HTT transporter gene.

Group 1 – two short alleles

Group 2 – one short and one long allele

Group 3 – two long alleles

Procedure

  1. Stressful life events occurring after the 21st birthday and before the 26th birthday were assessed using a life-history calendar.
  2. Past-year depression was assessed using the Diagnostic Interview Schedule.
  3. A correlation was tested for between stressful life events and depression, between the length of the alleles and depression and an interaction between perceived stress and the length of the alleles.
  4. A further test was done to see if life events could predict an increase in depression over time among individuals with one or two short alleles.

Results

The participants with two short alleles in the 5HTT transporter gene reported more depression symptoms in response to stressful life events than either of the other two groups. Those participants with two long alleles reported fewer depression symptoms. Moreover, childhood maltreatment was predictive of depression in adulthood only in adults with either one or two short alleles.

Conclusion

While there is no direct relation between short alleles on the 5HTT gene and depression, there is a relationship between these and incidences of stress and subsequent depression. The long alleles seem to protect against suffering depression as a result of stress. The effects of the gene adaptation are dependent on environmental exposure to stress.

Evaluation of Caspi et al. (2003)

Strengths

  • This was a very large cohort of males and females and the age was controlled in order to isolate the variable of number of stressful life events between the ages of 21 and 26.
  • It was a natural experiment, with the naturally occurring IV being the length of the alleles. If the results are replicated this would suggest high reliability.

Limitations

  • Gene action is highly complex, and actions of other genes could not be controlled. While the stressful life events were standardised as employment, financial, housing, health and relationship, whether or not a participant experienced a certain event as stressful is highly personal.
  • The symptoms of depression were self-reported, although each participant was contacted in order to verify the symptoms; self-reporting can be unreliable.

Reference

Caspi, A., Sugden, K., Moffitt, T. E., Taylor, A., Craig, I. W., Harrington, H., … & Poulton, R. (2003). Influence of life stress on depression: moderation by a polymorphism in the 5-HTT gene. Science301(5631), pp. 386-389.

Emic and Etic Explained

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Are you confused by the terms ’emic’ and ‘etic’ when applied to research methods?  It is hardly surprising, for a quick Google of these terms will produce diverse definitions, applied to both language and culture.  Once you get further into reading about how culture influences behaviour you will find that some writers even use them as nouns (’emics’ and ‘etics’) rather than as adjectives applied to particular approaches and research methods.

The origin of the words lies within the field of linguistics, according to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, and has been used in the terms ‘phonetic’ (representing speech sounds by symbols) and ‘phonemic’ (related to specific underlying sounds that distinguish two similar words).  Their first use in anthropology seems to date back to the 1950s, according to several dictionaries, and the way they are used in psychology is the same.

Etic research is research that compares data from different cultures in an effort to uncover general rules regarding human behaviour. Think eTic = ‘T for telescope.’  A telescope allows us to take a large comparative view of landscapes and see a lot from a distance.   This is often quantitative research that generates data tables.  (Höfstede’s research into cultural dimensions is a good example of  etic research).

Emic research is conducted within one culture or sometimes within one social group within the culture, and focuses on uncovering the individual and group meaning of people’s actions, communications and attitudes.  Think eMic = ‘M for microscope.’ A microscope allows us to take a very close look at very small details, and see the meaning of changes in cells, for example.  This is almost exclusively qualitative research that generates written data, often from video- or audio-recorded observations or interviews.  (Howarth’s focus group interview method researching the construction of social identity of Brixton youth, with detailed transcription of the interviews, is a good example of emic research).