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10 Reasons Why We Need Research Literacy, Not Scare Columns

03/11/2014 06:44 pm ET | Updated May 11, 2014

This column was co-authored with Glenda Revelle, Associate Professor, University of Arkansas, and Jessica Taylor Piotrowski, Assistant Professor and Director of the Center for Research on Children, Adolescents, and the Media at the University of Amsterdam, with additional contributions from members of the Children and Media Professionals group on Facebook.

The children and media research community has been buzzing with frustration at the viral circulation of Cris Rowan's Huffington Post column, "10 Reasons Why Handheld Devices Should Be Banned for Children Under the Age of 12." The piece pretty well defines "hack-ademic" writing, in which an author throws lots of learned-sounding terms and citations at a lay reader, while obscuring misinterpretations and fuzzy logic. Here are 10 reasons why Rowan's column is flawed.

1. First and foremost, why jump straight to banning? Handheld devices are the "Swiss Army Knife" of modern life: a safety device to keep in contact with family and friends, a camera for documenting the world, a window to connect with grandparents across miles, an e-reader, an educational tool, a gateway to global information, and a source of games and entertainment. To remove that entirely from children up to 12 would cut off an incredibly powerful resource.

It's unclear whether the author lacks faith in families, or is simply so scared of a generation that learns differently from her own that she can't envision any response but to ban it. Why not propose ways to use these tools proactively to ensure healthy development, through a message of balance, mindfulness and media literacy? Most families live lives in balance, with time for media as well as time to play outdoors, enjoy traditional playthings, read and talk as a family.

2. Correlation is not causation. That two events occur together doesn't mean that one causes the other; one of the most famous examples is that ice cream sales and murders both tend to rise in hot weather, but ice cream doesn't cause killings.

This is, perhaps, the most frequent source of confusion about academic work. It's easy for a strong writer to avoid creating misunderstanding, but ambiguity about correlation and causality can make a weak argument look stronger, or a complicated relationship look simpler.

3. Only experimental design research (subjects randomly assigned to groups and strict control of variables other than those under investigation) and certain, carefully-controlled longitudinal studies are worthy of terms used by Rowan, like "caused by," "is detrimental to," or "is implicated as a causal factor in." Experimental design studies are difficult if not impossible to conduct when it comes to real-world behaviors like media use.

4. Citing scary statistics that are completely unrelated to your argument is a bit of misdirection designed to evoke emotion, but does nothing to support a factual argument. In trying to claim that technology use is a causal factor in rising rates of childhood mental illness, Rowan says "one in six Canadian children have a diagnosed mental illness, many of whom are on dangerous psychotropic medication" (emphasis added). This is irrelevant to technology's role. Moreover, for the author to invoke terms like "addiction" without reference to studies investigating a biochemical, brain-based phenomenon is sensationalizing, pure and simple.

5. False premises lead inevitably to false conclusions. Rowan says, "technology use restricts movement, which can result in delayed development." The studies that have shown that restricted movement leads to developmental delays are animal experiments employing conditions of extremely restricted movement (i.e., the inability to move any of their limbs). Not only don't those extremes apply to mobile device use, some platforms (Kinect, Wii) actually promote physical movement (Staiano, A. E., Abraham, A. A., & Calvert, S. L. (2012); Staiano, A. E., & Calvert, S. L. (2011); Graves, L., Stratton, G., Ridgers, N., & Cable, N. (2007); Graf,D., Pratt, L.V., Hester, C.N., Short, K.R. (2009)).

6. Stick to the facts, ma'am. You can't conclude that relationships between media use and attention and memory are due to "the brain pruning neuronal tracks to the frontal cortex" without a neurological study that specifically investigated synaptic pruning. (For more discussion on this point, see: Courage, M.L., & Howe, M. (2010).)

7. Complex phenomena have equally complex causes. Childhood obesity arises from a variety of inter-related and inextricable societal, economic, cultural, biological and other factors. It is reductive in the extreme to suggest that media are the sole cause.

In an excellent review on the link between TV and obesity (Jordan, A. B. (2007)), the author notes, "ultimately, we must recognise that children's television viewing behaviours (including time spent with the medium and exposure to unhealthy food ads) are intimately tied to larger patterns of diet and activity within the home and messages about food and its role in our lives within the larger culture."

8. Rowan races to the superficial while willfully ignoring the deeper implications. If the majority of parents allow technology in their children's bedrooms without supervising its use, and the majority of children are sleep-deprived, third variables like parental supervision or socio-economic issues like family overcrowding, might be at issue.

9. It's not fair to just eat all the raisins in the raisin bran. The author ignores positive effects from media use. A host of research studies have shown that when media content are designed with research-based knowledge of how children use and understand media, and when they are designed to incorporate systematic academic or social curricula, children benefit (Schmidt, M. E., & Anderson, D. R. (2007); Fisch, S. M. (2004)).

Outside of academic research, real-life families of children with special needs are finding extraordinary adaptive uses of handheld devices in support of their children's cognitive, social and emotional development.

10. Marketing is not research. Rowan's 10th point, that today's childrearing and education are unsustainable, is unsupported except by promotion for videos on the author's website.

"Children are our future, but there is no future for children who overuse technology." I'm not sure whether to first address the hyperbole (actually, in today's society, the future is more dim for children who are kept ignorant to responsible and productive technology use) or the tautology (overuse of anything is a bad idea -- we should be concerned about any child whose life is circumscribed by one thing).

We stand against "banning" that which we don't like, and that includes the rights of activists to voice their fears and calcified wishes that it would all just go away. We believe that "hack-ademia" can only be defeated with greater public understanding of research. Critical literacy will help readers navigate through broad claims that appear to be scientific in nature, but actually misrepresent facts and findings. Outlets such as The Huffington Post can provide important, accessible, and digestible information to parents as they try to navigate this complex world. It is columnists' job to employ research literacy skills to ensure that we successfully translate available knowledge into supportive guidance, not more guilt and confusion. Rowan does families a disservice.

References:

Courage, M.L., & Howe, M. (2010). To watch or not to watch: Infants and toddlers in a brave new electronic world. Developmental Review, 30, 101-115.

Fisch, S. M. (2004). Children's learning from educational television. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Graf,D., Pratt, L.V., Hester, C.N., Short, K.R. (2009). Playing videogames increases energy expenditure in children. Pediatrics, 124, 534-540.

Graves, L., Stratton, G., Ridgers, N., & Cable, N. (2007). Comparison of energy expenditure in adolescents when playing new generation and sedentary computer games: Cross sectional study. British Medical Journal, 335, 1282-1284.

Jordan, A. B. (2007). Heavy television viewing and childhood obesity. Journal of Children and Media, 1(1), 45-54. doi: 10.1080/17482790601005124

Schmidt, M. E., & Anderson, D. R. (2007). The impact of television on cognitive development and educational achievement. In N. Pecora, J. P. Murray, & E. A. Wartella (Eds.), Children and television (pp. 65-85). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Staiano, A. E., Abraham, A. A., & Calvert, S. L. (2012). Adolescent exergame play for weight loss and psychosocial improvement: A controlled physical activity intervention. Obesity. Advance online publication. doi:10.1038/oby.2012.143

Staiano, A. E., & Calvert, S. L. (2011). Wii tennis play as physical activity in low-income African American adolescents. CyberPsychology, 5(1).