This was the headline of an article published in the Telegraph – a respected UK newspaper – 4 days ago. My immediate response is summed up in the following tweet:
This Telegraph piece is codswallop. I'll be posting an evidence-based response on my blog next week. https://t.co/KR46gCSDhp
— Sue Fletcher-Watson (@SueReviews) April 26, 2015
And here is the promised blog. My first approach was to pick apart the headline and I’ve illustrated my main comments in the graphic on the right here. The headline strikes me as being entirely designed to tap into the fears of people who don’t fully understand new technologies and especially worry that something so popular and engaging must be bad for you. I call this logical fallacy the ‘broccoli versus cake argument’. Everybody loves cake, but cake is not good for you, or not in large quantities. Broccoli is good for you but on the whole, people – children in particular – are reluctant to eat it. From examples like this, combined with a (false) assumption that children are incapable of managing their appetites in general, it is inferred that anything which children consume in large quantities must also be bad for them. Not the case.
Another aspect of the headline is it’s choice of dramatic, fear-mongering language. There are examples of this littered throughout the article: “children as young as five”, “youngsters are ‘less empathic’ than four decades ago.”, “engaging with machines”, “too much time using tablets and smartphones”. This language encourages us to imagine vulnerable young kids, virtually abandoned by their neglectful parents, failing to understand other people because instead their interactions are all with ‘machines’. In particular the cynic in me supposes that the randomly-selected period of four decades has been chosen to tap into the fears of a generation of people who were young parents four decades ago – and believe that this generation is getting it all wrong. I certainly can’t see any other logic for this choice. There are no data spanning this period to support the statement, smartphones have only been around for about ten years while television has been here much longer than forty years. And the teachers cited later in the article have been “teaching for thirty years”.
Many more components of the picture painted in the article don’t hold up against research evidence. For example, this paper reports that average time spent watching television by children has not changed in over fifty years. In addition this solid and well-designed study with a massive sample of 11,000 children showed no significant connections between screentime hours at 5 years old and a range of important outcomes including emotional ability, attention or hyperactivity and peer relationships at 7 years old. Claims have been made about a proposed maximum amount of screentime for children but these are not founded on the research evidence – see this article and then read the excellent take-down by blogger Pete Etchells, including comments from an eminent scholar in developmental psychology, Professor Dorothy Bishop.
Instead there is evidence that playing computer games can have a beneficial effect on grey matter development and can be used to enhance attention skills in kids with ADHD, and support a variety of learning including enhanced social skills in kids with autism. My own workwith families with a child who is actually autistic shows that the most popular activities on smartphones and tablets include Facebook, Facetime, watching YouTube videos and taking and browsing pictures. All of these activities involve looking at faces, real faces, often in real time and considering the social experiences and perspectives of others. And these are children who have an autism diagnosis, as opposed to the ‘borderline autistic’ (more on this below). If anyone could be expected to avoid the more social and interactive aspects of technology surely it would be these children whose diagnosis is defined by the presence of social interactive difficulties. I don’t have data on the technology preferences of non-autistic children but the download figures for Facebook, Facetime, Skype and so on speak for themselves. Futhermore, let’s consider some of the alternative activities in which these children might engage, of which I imagine Dr McGilchrist and his ilk would approve – how about reading a good book, practicing keepy-uppies in the garden, jigsaw puzzles or building with lego? Not much recognition of emotions going on there. How about these faces of Disney princess dolls – expressive learning material for a child? Not exactly.
So we can see that there’s no evidence to support a link from using technology to reduced empathy or face-reading abilities, nor any plausible mechanism by which this could occur. But are these skills even reduced? The article cites reports from teachers but while anecdotal information like this might be used to inspire a debate and a research study, this does not constitute evidence. Reference is made to a study of US college students which is probably this one. However it seems to have limited relevance to the 5-7 year olds who are the focus of the Telegraph report and includes no data on technology use. Forced to guess, I would imagine that any changes in the empathic status of US college students might be driven by a more competitive atmosphere in higher education institutions, but this is conjecture.
Instead, we can’t possibly know the facts about kids in the UK without having data on the emotional perception skills of children forty (or thirty, or ten) years ago. Such data from children who were aged 7 years old ten or so years ago may be available for analysis from one of the large cohort studies such as ALSPAC but I am not aware of any reports comparing those historic records with current emotion perception tests. In addition, if there had been a general, population-wide decrease in emotion perception ability we would expect performance on standardised measures to have declined – once again there is no evidence for this of which I am aware. Please do comment below if you know of anything relevant.
Lack of evidence doesn’t have to mean that a phenomenon doesn’t exist, and I don’t have evidence that empathy definitely hasn’t changed. So let’s give The Telegraph and Dr McGilchristthe benefit of the doubt and assume that children do appear less empathic than previously. In the original article, Nadja Reissland provides a plausible alternative explanation, that our more multi-cultural society means that the UK expectations of how people express and share emotion do not always apply. I’m not an expert in this area but here’s evidence from the UK census that diversity has increased in the UK population, and here are articles reporting that while recognition of basic emotions seems universal there are cultural differences in how emotions are expressed and in expectations of how others will express their emotions. Together this makes the cultural diversity hypothesis, if not convincing, then certainly much more plausible than blaming smartphones.
Let’s now turn our attention to the final component of this article – the ‘borderline autistic’ bogeyman of the headline. I hardly know where to begin with this. Borderline autistic isn’t a thing. There is a phenomenon known as the ‘broader autism phenotype’ or BAP – a collection of traits, without either positive or negative value, which are apparent in the general population to varying degrees. Some people have a lot of these traits, some don’t. Rates of these traits tend to be very high if you also have an autism diagnosis and may also be fairly high in relatives of people with autism. Example items from a widely-used measure of the BAP include “I would rather go to a library than a party“ and “I find making up stories easy“. The BAP is not even necessarily connected to poor emotional expression recognition skills – as in this recent reportof no impairment in recognition of facial emotions in parents of autistic children (who are normally considered to be candidates for the BAP ). The presence or absence of BAP traits have been linked to features including cognitive skills as well as some difficulties. To my mind, this is exactly the same way that, say, a characteristic like being chatty is an asset at parties and a disadvantage in meetings at work. BAP traits are not diagnostic of autism, not a cause for concern, and form part of the normal range of human behaviour. Indeed, I would personally concur with the neurodiversity movement in saying that autism itself is likewise part of the normal variety of humankind and not a prospect which should be used to scare parents and teachers. But that is another debate for another time.
This kind of reporting purports to arise out of ‘expert’ opinion which immediately invokes the assumption that the expert concerned has drawn on quality research evidence to construct their opinion. In this case, my own expertise in child development, autism and the uses of technology lead me to conclude that this article was written exclusively with book and newspaper sales in mind. It is a pity that journalists and academics alike are prepared to make such dramatic, unfounded claims, causing concern among parents and teachers and potentially preventing children from accessing the many benefits to be enjoyed from interacting positively with technology.