How much can be wrong in one article? “Smartphones making children borderline autistic, warns expert”

There seems to be a new Susan Greenfield or Manfred Spitzer, bring in Iain McGilchrist in this Telegraph article.

I think it lead do this tweets by Neuroskeptic:

But the man does have some evidence does he? Let’s look at some of the claims inside the article?

  • “He added that he had evidence that more pupils were displaying borderline “autistic” behaviour.”
    Could be, but there can be other explanations, e.g. more people finding their way to doctors, hype, overdiagnose and last but not least: no connections to smartphones.
  • “Dr McGilchrist said he has been contacted by teachers of five to seven year olds who have estimated that roughly a third of their pupils find it difficult to keep attention, read faces.
    In an interview with the Telegraph, he said: “These teachers have been teaching for 30 years and had found only a couple of people not able to do these simple tasks. People are increasingly finding it difficult to communicate at an emotional level in what appears to be features of autism.”Ok, not really evidence but anecdotes and again could be due to many other reasons.  Daniel Willingham has a good take on this.
  • “He pointed to research done in the US within the last decade that shows a decrease in empathy among college students and at the same time a rise in narcissism.”
    Actually the research done by Twenge et (2012) shows that the rise in narcissism started in the eighties of last century, has nothing to do with smartphones. The same study shows that the students from the last decade did significantly more community work, is this also due to smartphones?
  • “Children spend more time engaging with machines and with virtual reality than they used to in the past where they don’t have to face the consequences of real life. In virtual environments they don’t have to interpret the subtle cues of real-life environments like when they are playing with children in the woods.
    danah boyd would argue that this is rather a symptom of a problem than the real problem (cfr her book It’s complicated) as online is becoming the sole place to meet each other (without being controlled).

Are there issues with kids and technology. Sure there are, think privacy, grooming,… (for more check EU Kids as an example) but anecdotical evidence and speculation such as delivered by McGilchrist in this article actually may lead us away from the real problems (and opportunities!).

Luckily the journalist had the intelligence to check some of the claims with a scientist:

However, others have said the reasons behind an apparent lack of empathy are complex. Dr Nadja Reissland, a psychologist and senior lecturer at Durham University, said saying children are less able to read human emotion was “a big statement”.

She added: “It could be true but we need to know the background of these children. They might not want to talk about their emotions or might not be used to. They might also come from different cultures where they are normally not supposed to show emotions or English may not be their first language.”

Sadly this is written at the end of the article, while most people tend to read the title and the first paragraphs…

4 thoughts on “How much can be wrong in one article? “Smartphones making children borderline autistic, warns expert”

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