Friday, January 14, 2011

Science Only Studies One Thing at a Time! (re: Digital Natives)

I just got done watching a story on the impact of digital life on the teenaged brain that was on PBS News Hour on January 5th, 2011 (if you're watching the entire episode it's about 27 min in). Anyway, I was not overly impressed (*). The bottom line seemed to be that there is definitive evidence that teenagers' brains are being wired differently because of their use of technology and their reliance on multitasking. However, if you actually listen to what the researchers say, the story is not as clear cut. This is a story that is being presented too early based on research that is still on-going. Additionally, findings from one narrow area are being used to paint broad pictures to fill in gaps where research has not been completed.

I get really tired of this sort of reporting of science. This is almost as bad as the shows on aliens or cryptozoology that present 45 minutes of anecdotal incomplete evidence as proof and then 5 minuties with a scientist destroying the so called evidence.

Anyway, back to News Hour. At one point they see that it takes more of your brain answer two questions posed simultaneously than to answer one. The conclusion, since it requires more of your brain to answer two questions you can't be as good at multi-tasking. To me I say, wait... Now, I'm no neuroscientist, but the questions I'd like to ask one are:
Why does it follow that if I use more of my brain that I must not be as good? It seems like if I was only using the same amount that you could say that as I'd have to split the same "brain power" between two tasks. But if I use more of my brain does that mean I won't be as good? or does it mean I'll be able to get more done?

They also pointed to a study done on "video games" that showed that playing "video games" actually improves eyesight. Yes, as in the sort of eyesight corrected by glasses! It also improves things like attention and multi-tasking. But, the study in question relates to First Person Shooters (and probably one very specific game) and not all video games, but was presented as if it did. Now, there's research here, but then changes related to playing this sort of video game are being used to paint a broad picture related to all technology use by teens. This is not done explicitly, buy is very strongly implied.

Now, I'm not trying to say technology doesn't change our brains. I'm just saying we need to be very careful in how we use scientific evidence. We're told teenagers are better multi-taskers but I've never seen the research to prove this. There are mountains of anecdotal evidence, but this doesn't mean much. There are also mountains of anecdotal evidence that says sugar makes kid hyper even though every scientific study done shows this is not the case (**). We tend to see exactly what we expect to see.

* Disclaimer: I don't really believe in Digital Natives, so I may have brought my own biases with me when I watched this.

** “When parents think their children have been given a drink containing sugar (even if it is really sugar-free), they rate their children’s behaviour as more hyperactive.” Source: British Medical Journal 2008;337:a2769

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