Tag Archives: Aric Sigman

Are ‘screens’ really damaging our children ? I’m not convinced

26 Aug

I’ve written before about the idea that electronic devices are damaging children’s development, and this week has seen the reporting of another study that seems to suggest that electronic devices are cause harm to our children. Uhls etal report in a study published in ‘Computers in Human Behaviour’ that depriving children of interaction with electronic devices improves their ability to read facial emotions.

Put simply, this study looks at a group of children in a five-day residential camp where no ‘screens’ are allowed, and finds that their ability to discern facial emotion improves after the five days of screen-denial. On the face of it this seems like an interesting finding, in that is compares with a control-group of kids not at the camp. But I’ve got real misgivings about this, as I’m not convinced that this is a genuine control group.

It seems to me that the logic of this study is that if you give participants five days of practice at X (using the time that they would usually be engaged in Y), then performance on X will improve after five days. In this case X is face-to-face interaction and Y is ‘screen time’. I’m not clear why the cause of the improved performance is the five days of practice, rather than the denial of screen time.

If you truly wanted to test the hypothesis that the issue lays with the ‘screens’ would you not want to replace ‘screen time’ with some other solitary activity (i.e. reading a book). Of course, the conclusion that reading a book damages the ability to read facial emotions might not be quite the one people are looking for.

These sorts of study seem to be to be a great example for slightly more advanced students, in that they need to apply their rational thinking skills to seemingly plausible stories, rather than one’s that intuitively seem flawed.

Illustrating correlation and causation

8 Aug


I’ve written before about an alleged relationship between computer use and various psychological problems and a newspaper article I read this week made me think about that idea again. The newspaper story straightforwardly reports a paper demonstrating that children on the autistic spectrum spend twice as long playing video games as typically developing children. This seems like a really nice illustration for students that just because two things are related it doesn’t necessarily mean that one causes the other. I suspect that most students will rapidly see the idea that essentially solitary video gaming might be an obviously appealing recreation for autistic children.

What is depressing is that I suspect that those peddling a link between computer use and psychological problems (Aric Sigman, Baroness Susan Greenfield) will latch on to studies like this and claim that they support their theory. Much has been written elsewhere about Greenfield unsubstantiated claims about autism and computer use, (Ben Goldacre is particularly good on Greenfield’s strange claims) but I do wonder whether I should be pleased or depressed that my students can spot something that seems to be difficult for ’eminent’ scientists !

Things like this are always really useful for teaching. I find that the idea that they are developing a skill that others (who they think are cleverer) lack is really appealing to students.



Watching TV will do your children no harm, or possibly turn them into monsters !!

27 Mar

In a week when the UK has been repeatedly told how vital a ‘free press’ is to the future of the nation (in the wake of the News International ‘Hacking’ scandal) it’s ironic that to UK National Newspapers could report exactly the same science story, with two completely contradictory headlines. “Do television and electronic games predict children’s psychosocial adjustment? Longitudinal research using the UK Millennium Cohort Study” was published this month in Archives of Diseases in Childhood, and reports the TV and gaming habits of 11,000 UK five year olds.

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The Independent’s take on the study was that three hours of TV per day didn’t do children any harm, a view that was backed up by the BBC’s reporting of the study, that was headlines ‘TV time does not breed badly behaved children’. The strangeness begins to appear when you look at how this study was reported elsewhere in the British press.

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The Daily Express’s story reporting this study was headlined ‘Too much TV turns children into monsters’, and slightly less extreme versions of this appeared in the Daily Mail (More than three hours of TV ‘makes youngsters naughtier by the age of seven and the Daily Telegraph (Television link to behaviour problems in young children’). As ever, there is an excellent summary of the research available from the NHS Choices web site.

From a teaching perspective this saga offers a number of opportunities. The original study is publicly available online, so students could go back and  see for themselves which newspaper most accurately reported the study’s results. More straightforwardly this seems like a great way to illustrate to students that different branches of the media may have different agendas that they want to prompt, and this may well bias their reporting of what would seem an entirely factual story. A the most basic level it would be interesting to get students to read each of the newspaper versions of the story. IT’s interesting that the Daily Mails version of the story (More than three hours of TV ‘makes youngsters naughtier by the age of seven), acknowledges within the first few lines that the effect of TV viewing is very small.

One final point of interest this that some months ago I wrote about Aric Sigman’s widely reported view that any form of ‘screen time’ for children was damaging. Even the most biases reading of this really interesting study would conclude that it provided very little support for Dr Sigman’s views !!!

Reflections on teaching the ‘Psychology of conspiracy theories’

8 Mar

Just finished another really interesting teaching session looking at the psychology of the belief in conspiracy theories. A number of things came out of it that seem worth of discussion here :

1) The prevalence of belief in at least one conspiracy theory

Initially it was quite surprising how widespread belief in at least one conspiracy theory was amongst my students, and how many of them seemed to have quite detailed knowledge of some of the ‘evidence’ supporting conspiracy theories. However, when you look at recent research things become a bit more explicable. Swami & Coles’ (2010) paper in The Psychologist is a nice summary of the research, and talks about recent studies finding relationships between ‘Big-Five’ personality traits and conspiracy theory belief particularly ‘Openness to experience’. You’d hope that students were high on ‘openness to experience’, and thus maybe their overt interest in conspiracy theories isn’t as inexplicable as it initially looked.

2) Cognitive Dissonance Example

I’ve previously written about US Republican politicians getting themselves in all sorts of trouble when talking about abortion as being a great example of cognitive dissonance at work. I had the chance in this lecture to show students the examples I’d collected. Both videos seemed to work well to illustrate what a very powerful effect cognitive dissonance can be.

3) Historical Background knowledge

Academics make a lot of implicit assumptions about the background general knowledge that their students have, and on more than one occasion this year I’ve questioned quite how reliable these assumptions are. In yesterday’s lecture I showed the ‘Zapruder’ film of Kennedy’s assassination, and was surprised by the number of audible gasps of shock that it elicited. I think it’s pretty safe to say that most academics would assume that this film is so ‘well worn’ that everybody would have seen it many times, and yet yesterday’s evidence would suggest that this is not necessarily the case. It does make me wonder about how many more assumptions we make might be flawed. Sometimes I think we forget that events like the fall of the Berlin Wall occurred 23 years ago i.e. long before the birth of undergraduate students !

4) ‘Conspiracy Theories’ are a great way to engage students in rational thinking

I written before about the habit of some ‘scientists’ of cherry-picking evidence to suit their own pet theory, and conspiracy theories seem like a great way of getting students to see that you have to consider ALL of the available evidence.

All in all it seemed like a really successful teaching session to me, although final ‘proof’ will have to wait until next week’s mid-module feedback and May’s exams !

Cherry picking research. Screens of any sort (and Facebook) may be killing you, or at least your children !!!

14 Oct

In my lecture this week I was covering the idea of cherry picking research findings to match a particular view of a research question, as as luck would have it two days before the British press was covered with the ‘news’ that watching TV (or indeed screens of any sort) was seriously damaging children’s health. This story was based on the latest work of Dr. Aric Sigman, who has previously been involved in Putting baby in nursery ‘could raise its risk of heart disease’ and How using Facebook could raise your risk of cancer. I’m particularly interested in the work of Dr. Sigman as he received his PhD from the institution at which I now work (from the same department).

In my lecture I showed the students a TED lecture from Ben Goldacre on the questionable practices of the pharmaceutical industry in cherry picking research results to support there latest product (excellently detailed in his new book ‘Bad Pharma’). I moved on to show them the psychologists could be equally guilty of this, illustrated with the Facebook/cancer story mentioned above. Aric Sigman’s habit of cherry picking the literature has been extensively detailed, but what I find particularly surprising is that he openly admits to selectively reporting evidence to support his own point of view. All of this from someone who’s academic credentials on the surface seem exemplary . Aric Sigman’s own website lists him as a Chartered Biologist, Fellow of the Society of Biology, Chartered Psychologist, Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society, a recipient of the Chartered Scientist award from the Science Council and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine. Interestingly, true experts in the fields Sigman writes about, such as Dorothy Bishop (Oxford Professor of Developmental Neuropsychology) have regular criticised his writings (but have had little media impact). Indeed, Bishop has written a great piece on how to become a media science expert, where you suspect she may have had Aric Sigman in mind.

On the surface all of this could be quite depressing for someone trying to teach students to think rationally, in that it questions the value of science’s much-revired peer-review process (Sigman’s work has been regularly published in the peer-reviewed ‘The Biologist’. However, as a vehicle for encouraging students to question everything they are presented with even if it comes from a peer-reviewed sources an an apparently highly qualified author, it is second to none.

On a more cheerful note, my lecture did produce one gem that I will recycle for years to come. The Daily Mail’s article suggesting Facebook could raise your risk of cancer has a very interesting addition an the bottom, a button to post the story to Facebook and a counter showing that 4565 readers have ‘liked’ the story on Facebook !

One of my students spotted this particular gem of irony, so perhaps what I am teaching is worthwhile !

The perils of watching TV

20 Apr

In the summer of 2010 the Daily Mail reported news of a psychologist telling the European parliament that there is a negative relationship between TV viewing and physical and psychological health and educational progression. The psychologist in question, Aric Sigman, went on to propose that the damage occurs when children view more that 90 minutes per day, when average viewing is between 3 and 5 times more than this.

This story allowed me to introduce a number of ideas to the students. Firstly, by encouraging students to look t where information is coming from they soon discover Aric Sigman’s previous work suggesting a relationship between Facebook use and cancer.

Beyond this it’s also interesting to deconstruct a number of the points made in the story. The suggestion that the average TV viewing of children is between 4.5 and 7.5 hours per day should, at the very least , be questioned. At best you might suspect that this is a median rather than mean figure. But rather more interesting this that the negative effects of TV watching appear irrespective of the content. By giving the students an extreme example i.e. watching 90 minutes of David Attenborough documentaries a day, and asking whether it’s plausible that this might have negative educational consequences you can establish that the relationships being reported are probably much more complex that the story makes them appear.

There are also points to be made here about correlation and causation, i.e. is it the TV viewing, or a generally sedentary life style that is causing the reported problems

Facebook causes cancer

17 Apr

Whilst much of the Daily Mail’s obsession with categorising things into what does and does not cause cancer is only really useful to get a laugh in lectures, their story on a relationship between Facebook and cancer can be useful as a teaching example. The story reports a paper by Dr Aric Sigman in The Biologist’ that outlines in some detail the relationship been Facebook and increased risk of cancer.

This story is useful for teaching in a number of ways:

1) Getting students to read the original source – Unlike many newspaper stories, the issue with this story is not immediately apparent, and thus students need to get to grips with the original material.

2) Getting students to follow an academic argument – Sigman presents data in his paper suggesting a negative correlation between social interactions and internet use, and goes on to make a link between internet use and loneliness.

3) On-line database searching. – In his critique of Sigman’s work Ben Goldacre demonstrates how relatively simple online searches can yield a range of studies that contradict Sigman’s conclusions including one particularly damning example of a follow-up paper to one cited by Sigman that contradicts his conclusions.

This one simple story can thus be used to introduce students to some quite complex concepts, but if they can go away with the idea that ‘Just because it’s in a journal it may not be right’ then it’s worthwhile teaching

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