This is Episode 19 of PsychCrunch, the podcast from the British Psychological Society’s Research Digest, sponsored by Routledge Psychology. Download here.
Do we worry too much about screen time? The issue of screen use by children and teenagers is rarely out of the headlines, and institutions including the World Health Organization have recommended specific limits on screen time for the youngest age groups. But what does the science actually say about the effects of screen time?
Picture in your mind a futuristic, technologically enhanced human. Perhaps you imagined them with a subcutaneous device in their arm for phone calls and browsing the internet. Maybe they are wearing smart glasses for augmented reality. What I’d wager you didn’t think of is the presence of an artificial sixth digit attached to each hand. However, a breakthrough open-access study in Nature Communications – the first to study the physiology and sensorimotor mechanics of polydactyly volunteers (people born with extra fingers) – shows the feasibility and practical advantages that would be gained from such an extra appendage. The results also have implications for the medical treatment of polydactyl people, who often have their extra finger removed at birth on the presumption that it will be of no benefit to them.
My friends and I would often be so hooked on the latest Sega Mega Drive video game that we’d play all day long, breaking only for munchies or when nature called. Our parents would urge (plead with) us to get outside, especially when it was sunny. “The fresh air and exercise will do you good”, they would say, or similar. Fast forward to now, and the anxiety over all the time that children and young people spend in front of screens, be it playing video games, watching TV or using social media, has of course only intensified. Surely it can’t be mentally or physically healthy, can it?
In this latter camp are Amy Orben and Andrew Przybylski at the University of Oxford, the authors of a recent paper in Psychological Science, which aims to set new standards for research in this area – including by using time-use diary-based reports of screen time (rather than relying on notoriously unreliable retrospective reports), and by pre-registering their methods and hypotheses, thus guarding against the kind of post-hoc data-mining that they say has plagued the field.
Smartphone addiction (SA) is a controversial concept that is not recognised by psychiatry as a formal diagnosis. Critics say that a problematic relationship with one’s phone is usually a symptom of deeper underlying issues and that it is inappropriate to apply the language of addiction to technology. Nonetheless, other mental health experts believe SA is real and they’ve accumulated evidence suggesting it is associated with reductions in academic and work performance, sleep disorders, symptoms of depression and loneliness, declines in wellbeing – and an increased risk of road traffic accidents. According to a group of psychiatry and psychology researchers at one of the largest universities in Brazil, to that list can now be added: poorer decision-making.
Claims that violent video games lead to aggression have been around since the days of Space Invaders. When young people are exposed to violent media, the theory goes, their aggressive thoughts become more prominent, leading them to commit acts of violence. But while several studies have found results that seem to back up this idea, the evidence is far from unequivocal.
Now a study published in Royal Society Open Sciencehas failed to find any association between the time spent playing violent video games and aggressive behaviour, adding to a growing body of literature that suggests that such a link has been overstated – or may not exist at all.
Outrage: It’s absolutely everywhere. Today’s world, particularly the version of it blasted into our brains by social media, offers endless fodder, from big, simmering outrages (climate change and many powerful institutions’ refusal to do anything about it) to smaller quotidian ones (every day, someone, somewhere does something offensive that comes to Twitter’s attention, leading to a gleeful pile-on).
In part because of rising awareness of the adverse consequences of unfettered digital-age outrage, and of journalistic treatments like So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson (which I interviewed him about here), outrage has become a particularly potent dirty word in recent years. Outrage, the thinking goes, is an overly emotional response to a confusing world, and drives people to nasty excesses, from simple online shaming to death threats or actual violence.
But a new paper argues that the concept of outrage has gotten too bad a rap and that its upsides, especially as a motivator of collective action and costly helping, have been overlooked. Writing in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, the psychologists Victoria Spring, Daryl Cameron and Mina Cikara detail important questions about outrage that have yet to be answered, and they highlight how certain findings – especially from the “intergroup relations” literature, in contrast to the mostly negative findings from moral psychology – suggest it can serve a useful purpose.
Have young people never had it so good, or do they face more challenges than any generation? Our current era in the West is one of high wealth and relatively free of deprivation, meaning minors enjoy material benefits and legal protections that would be the envy of those living in the past. But there is an increasing suspicion that all is not well for our youth, and one of the most popular explanations, among some experts and the popular media, is that excessive “screen time” is to blame (all the attention young people devote to their phones, tablets and laptops). However, this is a contentious theory and such claims have been treated sceptically by some scholars based on their reading of the relevant data.
Now a study in the journal Emotion has provided another contribution to the debate, uncovering strong evidence that adolescent wellbeing in the USA really is experiencing a decline, and arguing that the most likely culprit is the electronic riches we have given them.
Audiobook sales are booming, almost doubling in the UK over the past five years. Some are now sophisticated, being voiced by multiple actors and featuring extensive sound effects. But even single-narrator audiobooks are, it’s been argued, more cognitively and emotionally engaging than print – in part because a listener can’t slow down, as they can with a print book.
As a writer whose latest psychology-themed novel She, Myself and I is now being produced as an audiobook, I can’t help wondering about the benefits, and the costs. Personally, I like to be able to control my pace through a print book, to re-read sentences or paragraphs that I particularly enjoy or that I don’t quite process properly on a first read.
However, as Daniel Richardson at UCL, and fellow researchers, point out in a new study, available as a pre-print on the bioRxiv service, “Our oldest narratives date back many thousands of years and pre-date the advent of writing… For the majority of human history, stories were synonymous with oral tradition; audiences listened to a story-teller imparting a tale.” Humans did not evolve to read, so perhaps there’s something primordially special about listening to a story. But, as the researchers go on to write, “in the modern era, video has emerged as a major narrative tool as well.”
So which is more engaging – video or audio? That’s the focus of the new paper. And I’m intrigued. I’ve also sold TV rights to the novel, and TV, of course, is the medium of mass-appeal. If my book is ultimately turned into a TV series, might viewers become more involved in the story than my audiobook listeners?
If you are with someone who is ignoring you while they interact with their smartphone, you have been phone snubbed, or “phubbed”. Phubbing is common, at least in Western cultures – in a recent US survey, nine out of ten respondents said they had used their smartphone during their most recent social activity. There’s also evidence that it is socially harmful, leaving people less satisfied with their face-to-face interactions and generating feelings of resentment and jealousy. Now the Journal of Applied Social Psychology has published a new study exploring the reasons for these effects.