Yesterday, 12/06/13, Dr Aric Sigman came to our school to talk to pupils, staff and parents about various issues, prompted by some difficulties presented by the partially anonymous social media website ask.fm. Sigman specialises in presenting his published work around the world including school talks for PSHEEC covering alcohol, body image, electronic media (screen time), parenting and more. For our school he had been asked to cover all or most of these in a whistle-stop tour of his research. I warn you there may be inaccuracies in this post but I have omitted areas I felt unsure about. It presents a flavour of the overall presentation.
Dr Sigman is an articulate and charismatic speaker and all our audiences enjoyed his presentations and many felt inspired, or at least had their interest piqued, by what he had to say. The over-arching message he left was that, for young people (<19), recreational screen time (gaming, videos, social media) is averagely at 6.1 hours per day and should be limited to 2 hours. The argument is presented with a research evidence-base about the chemicals that are released in our brains from specific activities and that too much passive screen time that does not stimulate good brain development. In fact, it is very possible it is bad for you when your body is going through important growth stages. Among the examples of actual impact that were cited was France banning any television media aimed at <3 year olds; screen time for very young people should be kept to an absolute minimum.
I photographed many of Sigman’s slides but he challenged someone filming him to make sure it was for private use only. His concern was because, if publicly distributed, it may cause a backlash from organisations that want us to be using screens or alcohol more, not less. This made me a little suspicious. If research is robust it can withstand scrutiny and counter-research. Enter Dr Ben Goldacre (props to @simfin for the pointer) who authors badscience.net and was recently invited by the Right Honourable Michael Gove MP to examine how schools might improve the use of evidence to inform practice. Goldacre appears in a Newsnight interview with Jeremy Paxman and Aric Sigman in 2009 where the latter’s report is challenged because it led to Baroness Professor Susan Greenfield, then head of the Royal Institution, making claims that led to the Daily Mail headline: ‘Social websites harm children’s brains‘. The interview is embedded below:
Goldacre grinds his research evidence standards axe regularly. This is partly how he earns his crust, so, take from it what you will.
I was concerned that there was going to be a distorted message being given to my school community. My concern was not unfounded. Sigman clearly enjoyed the fact his work is perceived by many as contentious, and he let the audience know he was being invited by governments and the like to address important people around the world. And that some audiences are more receptive than others because they serve a specific agenda.
I am not in a position to scrutinise the validity of Sigman’s claims, but I wanted to try and make sure that his message was clear. When he says ‘recreational screen time’ maybe people hear ‘screen time’ without the qualifying distinction. I felt obliged to seek clarification in the Q&A sessions. Was he only talking about screen time spent on recreational activities? He was, and added that he only meant passive screen time; Wii games employing physical actions like bowling did not count. It was important to me to make sure that the audience were very clear that screen time for learning does not contribute to this process. Sigman aligned reading a book to stimulating imagination about sensory perception in the mind. This was a complex process deemed healthy for the brain, and, therefore, ‘kindles’ (for which I think yo can substitute ‘reading on any device’ since the introduction of kindle fire). The chemical release can be stimulated from reading on a computer or working on research or an essay. Obviously, there are a lot of grey areas here (some research is watching YouTube etc.) and Sigman stipulated that recreation meant gaming, youtube and social media. He also asked the audience to imagine hunting and similar activities that caused stress hormones and cortisone to be released back in the early days of our development. Our bodies are designed to release these chemicals during physical exertion but playing the adrenaline inducing first-person shoot ’em up will cause the same chemical release whilst the recipient is relatively motionless.
Is this pseudo-science? Well I don’t really know. Sigman substantiated his claims with research. He did not permit his slides to be published but I can publish all the sources I managed to capture. This is the last of what I have to say on the matter other than a couple of Year 9 boys approached me today to let me know their Mum’s had removed their gadgets as soon as they got home. We all have to learn how to manage our screen time. I’m not convinced Dr Sigman has all the facts in his presentation. I hope he has not set fear alight in our parents and teachers. I guess a passionate and urgent message is always a danger with showmanship spotlight research presentations. My feeling is that we need more dispassionate research to unravel this evidence base, similar to that Goldacre has bothered to assemble on his website. Maybe we may see another analysis of Sigman’s work by Goldacre. After all, it seems to be a hobby of his.
Below is a sample of his quotes that I managed to note; many are missing.
Salivary Cortisol in Relation to the Use of ICT in School-Aged Children. Wallenius (?), M., et al (2010) Psychology, 2010, 1, 88-95. ‘Adolescents rarely describe gaming and surfing in the Internet as stressing activities but, instead, as a way of passing time, getting experiences, and social communication.’
The World Unplugged, (2011) University of Maryland. 1000 students in 10 countries on 5 continents. Study to give up tech for 24 hours. ‘A clear majority in every country failed.’ ‘many students employed the rhetoric of addiction, dependency and depression when self-reporting their reactions to going unplugged for 24 hours… many students also reported both mental and physical symptoms of distress.’ ‘they physically craved the actual devices themselves.’
American Journal of Drug Alcohol Abuse (2010) 10.5% change in dopamine release ‘in the caudate after playing a motorbike riding computer game.’ ‘Computer game playing may lead to long-term changes in the reward circuitry that resemble the effects of substance dependence.’
Microstructure Abnormalities in Adolescents with Internet Addiction Disorder (2011). ‘multiple structural changes’ deep within the brain. ‘several small regions in the brain were smaller, in some cases as much as 10 to 20 percent.’ Surface-level brain matter appears to shrink according to how long you’ve had ‘internet addiction’.
American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry (2009). Surfing internet – areas of the brain associated with empathy showed virtually NO increase in stimulation. ‘Young people are growing up immersed in this technology and their brains are more malleable, more plastic and changing. As the brain evolves and shifts its focus towards new technological skills, it drifts away from fundamental social skills.’
Mirroring Others’ Emotions Relates to Empathy and Interpersonal Competence in Children. Pfeiffer et al. Neuroimage (2008). ‘stimulated by face-to-face interaction.”stimulation related directly to children’s: level of empathy; social skills.’
Meta-analysis of 72 studies 1979-2009 by University of Michigan, May 2010. ‘College kids today are about 40% lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago’ ‘We found the biggest drop in empathy after the year 2000… 1) The increase in exposure to media during this time… 2) Recent rise in social media.’
Couldn’t see the source of this but here it is anyway, discussing mental health: ‘Children’s Screen Viewing is Related to Psychological Difficulties Irrespective of Physical Activity: ‘Children who spent [more than] 2 hours per day watching television or using a computer were at increased risk of high levels of psychological difficulties and this risk increased if the children also failed to meet physical activity guidelines. … Limiting computer use and television viewing may be important for optimal well-being for young people.’
Facebook Depression, American Academy of Pediatrics (2011) Guidance for the Clinician: The Impact of Social Media on Children, Adolescents, and Families: ‘Facebook depression … develops when preteens and teens spend a great deal of time on social media sites, such as Facebook, and then begin to exhibit classic symptoms of depression.’
Increase in Loneliness, Children Talking to Childline about Loneliness report by NSPCC (2010): ‘Among boys: 500% increase in calls about loneliness from five years ago.’
Computers in Human Behaviour, Kirschner & Karpinski (2010): ‘Three-quarters of the Facebook users said they didn’t believe spending time on the site affected their academic performance….’ But Facebook users’ grades were 20% lower.
Harvard Medical School (2012) did a systematic review of parental interventions on screen time: 29 studies ‘achieved significant reductions in TV viewing or screen-media use.‘