Scientific Illiteracy – If It Was That Simple…

One of my pet peeves, among many, are articles written as though fixing everything about life is as simple as getting outside more, or eating this one thing, or stating that a study shows something that really, maybe it doesn’t.

For example, the studies about screen time, or social media use, which seem to be all over the place. Is it dangerous for everyone? More dangerous for teens, especially teen girls? Does it cause depression, or do people with depression tend to use social media more?

Or is all that just bunk?

This article does a good job of explaining the problem, and I find it worth a read.

Screens Might Be as Bad for Mental Health as … Potatoes

To put it in perspective, the researchers compared the link between technology use and adolescent well-being to that of other factors examined by the large-scale data sets. “Using technology is about as associated with well-being as eating potatoes,” Przybylski says. In other words: hardly at all. By the same logic, bullying had an effect size four times greater than screen use. Smoking cigarettes? 18 times. Conversely, getting enough sleep and eating breakfast were positively associated with adolescent well-being at a magnitude 44 and 30 times that of technology use, respectively.

Put another way: Technology’s impact on well-being might be statistically significant, but its practical significance—according to existing data sets—appears negligible. “The level of association documented in this study is incongruent with the level of panic we see around things like screen time,” says University of California Irvine psychologist Candice Odgers, who researches how technology affects kids’ development and was unaffiliated with the study. “It really highlights the disconnect between conversations in the public sphere and what the bulk of the data are showing us.”

The issue is not that the studies are wrong, per se. But that the headlines that appear online do actually misrepresent the overall impact. So, to take a made up in my head example, if you took 100 kids who had never used social media before, and handed them an Instagram account, and 2 of them felt worse about themselves after a few weeks, that would be statistically significant. There’s a 2 percent chance Instagram is creating a problem for kids.

But there’s a 98 percent chance it isn’t. (And many of these studies actually show a lower risk than that.)

Headline writers, of course, don’t have to get into those nuances though, they can just write “Instagram = bad for kids” and be done with it. And scientific and mathematical literacy being what it is, a panic ensues.

Now, whether a kid uses social media or not may not be overly relevant to the larger world, but we also see these same kinds of headlines in the mental health space, and I honestly believe it leads to stigma. After all, how can you have depression when that post I saw linked on Facebook the other day said nature was the cure-all for depression. Just go for a walk already, or do some yoga. You’ll be fine.

It’s not that simple. Yes, there may be research that shows those things can ease some depression symptoms in some people, but they’re not “cures”. The human brain is way more complicated than all of that.

I also really liked what Dr. John Grohol had to say in his recent post, Clean Your Room & Other Dumb, Simplistic Advice.

Dr. John, as usual pulls no punches when it comes to bad self-help advice.

Research consistently demonstrates that most things meant to help someone with a specific concern or problem don’t work well for most people. Only some of them do, for some people, some of the time — no matter whether it’s a specific diet, a type of exercise, psychotherapy, a supplement, or a drug. It’s overly simplistic to suggest that you know X will work.

Again, go read the whole thing because there are some really good gems in it, but this really gets at the crux of what I’ve been trying to say about the way the media reports on scientific studies. Just because something works at a rate slightly higher than doing nothing for a very large group of people, does not mean it will work at all for any one individual. In fact, even in the studies, it probably didn’t work for the majority of the people in the study. As in my fake example above, 2 percent were affected. That’s not nothing. If something is shown to be 2% more effective, it might be worth trying, but don’t assume that it is going to work.

You aren’t that simple. You’re an individual. You have your own unique qualities and brain chemistry that make you, you. We will not eliminate all mental health struggles by spending more time outside.

If it were that simple, well, we wouldn’t be where we are with mental health issues, would we?

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