Shouldn’t policy be based on evidence – not the other way around? By Amy Orben
The future seems rosy for Jeremy Hunt. In his newest letter to social media firms, he envisions a future where every child gets a state-imposed and universal social media limit, similar to the alcohol units recommended by government. After a child surpasses a set cutoff point, their social media access is stopped for the day. Hunt makes it seem easy, practical, and better for children and parents alike.
There is just one glaring problem. This drastic policy still needs the scientific evidence to back it up. Hunt announced yesterday that his chief medical officer will be taking charge of this. Well, as a scientist working in this area, I can tell Dame Sally Davies now: the evidence this policy needs doesn’t exist. If she is not willing to ignore large parts of the scientific literature or exaggerate a minority of low-quality studies, her job to find the amount of “science” to back up such significant state intervention will be impossible. And, to insert an important side-question, shouldn’t policy be based on evidence – not the other way around?
Scientists examining child development and technology use have for years been trying to raise awareness of the misguided debate around children and screen time; a debate often devoid of significant scientific evidence. The common comparison between screen time and drugs like alcohol indicates a misconception many politicians and journalists share. Screen time isn’t a chemical that, when ingested, causes concrete physiological changes that can harm the body and cause long-term dependency. It is a diverse and ever-changing part of daily life.
First, there is no concrete evidence that supports the common view that technology use is inherently harmful. The evidence base is low-quality and riddled with issues including biases in reporting and small effect sizes. Recent studies that got large amounts of press coverage and demonstrated a negative link between social media use and wellbeing also evidenced that knowing a child’s social media use will only help you predict 1% of their depressive symptoms. That is an extremely small effect and raises questions about whether our debate to improve teen mental health is misplaced. Other research, for example, shows that the positive effects of a good night’s sleep and regular breakfasts on wellbeing are three times stronger than the negative effects of technology use.
Screen time guidelines need to be built on evidence, not hype
Notwithstanding this, the debate is oversimplifying the sheer diversity of technology and social media use. No individual’s social media use is the same, with the content and context changing daily. It is therefore impossible to conclude what the universal effects of “social media use” are. Want to know the true effect of X minutes of social media use on a child? The answer will almost always be “it depends”: it depends on the kind of social media use, the usage patterns, the child’s motivations and the context. Until we accept this inherent complexity in scientific research, policymaking and media coverage, our efforts to help children and teenagers and tackle societal changes will be misplaced and inefficient.
So, if the Department of Health wants to roll out large-scale policy changes, go ahead, but please do not try to make it sound like “science” backs it up.