Each morning as I walk the dog I listen to podcasts. Podcasts about board games, storytelling, human behaviour and entrepreneurship. Earlier this week, a podcast called “How to Overcome Our Fear of the New” from the Entrepreneur Network came up on my playlist.

As part of the show, the host, Jason Feifer, interviews an academic researcher called Amy Orben. Amy was putting the finishing touches to her theses on the impact of social media on mental health, specifically depression, when she decided to search for a quote to use in the introduction, to give her research a historic reference point. 

In a 1941 edition of the Journal of Paediatrics, she came across an article about the dangers of radio on children. The author wrote:

“The average child radio addict starts lapping up his fascinating crime at about four o’clock in the afternoon and continues for much of the time until sent to bed. The spoiled children listen until around 10 o’clock, the less indulged around 9 o’clock.”

The article continues to talk about the addiction to radio and the harm it causes to children. Reading this, Amy had a sort of existential crisis. She says, “It felt like exactly the same conversation I’d been having for three years.”

Post thesis, Amy began working as a research fellow and decided to look back at her own research and at the social media studies that she’d used in her thesis in a new way. These were big studies that had attracted a lot of comment, press and political attention. She delved more deeply into the research and data analysis methods used in these studies and found some alarming things.

  1. The reporting methods were unsatisfactory. Data was largely self-reported. For example, a researcher might ask a teenager how much time they’d spent on social media on a normal weekday, and their response would be recorded as hard data. 
  2. The data was flawed through researcher bias. From the data it was impossible to tell whether there is a causal impact of social media on depression. 

So in other words, while it can be shown that there is a correlation between social media use and depression, it can’t be claimed that the cause of the depression is the social media use. In fact, it may well be the situation that young people who are suffering from depression turn to social media to find support from a community that they feel they belong to. 

Listening to the studies reported in the media, parents of teenagers may well decide to remove social media from their children, particularly if that child appears to be suffering from depression. But this “solution” to the idea that social media causes depression could actually be making the situation worse.

Amy’s study proved that “technology use has a nearly negligible effect on adolescent psychological wellbeing. Technology use tilts the needle less than half a percent away from feeling emotionally sound. For context, eating potatoes is associated with nearly the same degree of effect and wearing glasses has a more negative impact on adolescent mental health.”

Mind blown. 

So when Amy realised this, she started to look at the bigger picture. Why, does history keep repeating itself? Why is there the same amount of panic now about social media as there was in the 40s about the radio? Why haven’t we learned from our mistakes?

She calls it The Sisyphean Cycle. Sisyphus was a figure from Greek mythology who was doomed to push a boulder up a hill for the whole of eternity. When the boulder almost reached the top, it would fall and he’d have to start over. 

In Amy’s cycle, our boulder is ‘the fear of the new’. When a new technology is introduced, it starts to create widespread changes in behaviour, often in young people who are perhaps quicker to embrace new technologies. These behaviour changes then become linked to some larger concern in society. The boulder starts being pushed up the hill…

The podcast gives the example that “in the 1950s there was a panic about widespread juvenile delinquency and pinball was identified as one of the causes.” 

Then the problem moves into a political realm – and the boulder is pushed further up the hill… Politicians are lobbied by the electorate and take on the fight, which they jump on because it is seen as an easy way to win voters, which fuels more press… As Feifer says, “This is how you get Mayor LaGuardia of New York City smashing up pinball machines with a sledgehammer and throwing them into the river.”

The huge press coverage attracts funding for scientific research, which generates a volume of studies about the ‘problem’. Scientists are in demand for media interviews. There is a great demand for evidence to back up the problem that we believe we have…. The boulder is nearly at the top…

Here’s the problem, scientists are trained to take each technological/social phenomenon as new. They aren’t trained to take all our learning from previous technologies into account. So they end up looking at the problem close up- with a microscope, rather than taking a step back and putting it into the context of what we’ve learned about technologies and their impact on society in the past. 

Technologies develop much more quickly than scientific analysis. Developing the science takes time, so by the time scientists are discovering the actual relationship (or lack of it) between a technology and psychology, the population, and crucially the press, has moved onto the next problem. 

The boulder rolls all the way down the the bottom of the hill. 

Amy Orben

I don’t normally write huge blogs about a 15 minute segment on a podcast I’ve listened to, so you can probably tell that this one has got me thinking, a lot.

The subtitle of my book, The Board Game Family, is ‘Reclaim your children from the screen’. While the book is almost entirely about board games and why you would want to play them as a family, screen-time and digital entertainment is the focus of several sections. 

As a parent I do sometimes feel that I’d like to throw the playstation out of the window and set it on fire in the garden. But that isn’t because I think that the playstation is inherently ‘bad’ or ‘harmful’. It’s because it draws my son’s attention more than I do. I miss my children because the activities they take part in on their screens are more interesting than I am.

I advocate for families to play board games because they bring people together, strengthen relationships and create shared memories. Whatever technology is currently scaring the population, the need for family interaction, bonding and shared activity will remain. 

So try not to focus on the harmful effects of your children’s favourite pursuits, instead look for opportunities to spend time with them. To talk, to laugh and to play. That is the most important factor to their mental health.