What impact does social media have on the minds of developing students? What happens when we expose children to a seemingly endless stream of ‘fake news’ and online culture of outrage at an incomprehensively wide array of subjects, and then allow keyboard warriors, confident in their anonymity, to bully, harass and cajole them? What kind of world are we creating and what might the long-term impacts be? In an effort to better understand these issues, I recently met with Candice Odgers, a Professor of Psychological Science at the University of California Irvine and a Research Professor in the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University. Her research focuses on how early experiences and social inequalities influence child and adolescent development, with an emphasis on how new technologies, including mobile phones and web-based tools, can be leveraged to understand and improve the lives of young people.
Her team has tracked adolescents’ mental health, device usage and daily experiences via smartphones and wearable devices for the last decade. Most recently, they have focused on reducing the ‘new’ digital divide to promote positive outcomes for all youth.
Candice was a William T. Grant scholar and the recipient of early career awards from the American Psychological Association, the Society for Research in Child Development, the Royal Society of Canada, and the Association for Psychological Science.
In 2015, she was awarded the Distinguished Contributions to Psychology in the Public Interest Early Career Award and, in 2016, the Jacobs Foundation Advanced Research Fellowship. Candice is the incoming Co-Director of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research Child, Brain and Development Program and of the Developmental Science in the Digital Age Initiative. She is the author of over 100 scientific publications, appearing in journals such as the American Journal of Psychiatry, Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, Developmental Psychology, Nature, Psychological Bulletin and Psychological Science. Her research has also been disseminated widely through coverage in outlets such as the Economist, New Scientist, London Times, Scientific American and the Washington Post.
I caught up with Candice at the 2019 Global Education and Skills Forum, where she was presenting, to better understand how social media and smart devices impact student development.
ETS: Candice, can I begin by asking you to tell us a little about your research.
Candice Odgers: I spend most of my days following kids around on their mobile devices, getting streaming data from their devices and wearables, and trying to understand a little bit more about how much digital technology they’re using each day and also their mental health. So, how they’re feeling as they move about from their home, to their school, through their neighbourhoods.
ETS: That is a big area to try and understand and I guess a really important and interesting one. In just over a decade, we have seen some pretty significant societal changes, including the advent of smartphones and the rise of social media which, when combined, has seemingly created some interesting and complex challenges.
Candice Odgers: Right, the increase has been very quick and we’re at the point of almost full saturation. So about 95 percent of adolescents in the United States have access to or own a smartphone, and they’re spending about six hours per day on average on just screen media use. That’s not counting the time they use or spend online for school, education, and so on.
ETS: Wow, that is a lot. I guess one of the biggest challenges for schools is should smart devices be banned from schools? On the one side of the debate, we have people saying, “No, that’s ridiculous. How would we facilitate things like BYOD programs? If you want equitable education technology, not everyone can afford a laptop or a tablet.” and then you have the other side of the debate claiming, “Smartphones are little more than a huge distraction.” Where do you fall on this?
Candice Odgers: This is something that each school has to work out for itself. They need to develop a media plan that’s going to work for the teachers, for the parents, but mostly for the kids. The goal is to have the ideal learning environment for youth and to do that in a way that minimises interference, but also maximises the kind of the comfort that they have. The interesting thing when this issue comes up is that you see the biggest pushback from parents who often don’t want their children on devices, but don’t want to be disconnected from their children when someone threatens to take them away.
ETS: To me, the really fascinating part of this comes from the research that’s being done now around neuroplasticity and how smartphones are basically rewiring our brains.
Candice Odgers: That’s a really interesting observation. It’s true that our brain is changing as we engage with digital technology, but our brain is changing when we interact with anything in the world, and especially during adolescence or in this period of rapid growth. The real question is not whether it’s changing, but whether that change is optimising us for this future or whether it’s impairing us in some way.
There are a few people trying to answer this question but, as you can imagine, it’s the tricky question. There’s a large study being conducted in the US right now, the ABCD Study, which is following 10,000 young adolescents using repeated scans and assessments of media use et cetera, in addition to a number of other things. Hopefully, that study will give us a longitudinal sense of what’s happening, but it’s going to be really difficult to pinpoint whether it’s social media per se, especially given, as I said before, that we have reached this point of saturation, where almost all adolescents are using the devices and using them so frequently that it will be very difficult to find a natural control group.
ETS: With regard to how our brains are being rewired, much of the research suggests there is a direct correlation between the use of social media and how these platforms are set up to supposedly create a stimulus response cycle with ‘likes’ and other forms of peer approval, which purportedly increase dopamine levels in the brain and give rise to addiction. Can you tell us a little bit about how this mechanism works?
Candice Odgers: As you suggest, dopamine gets mentioned a lot in much of the research coming out. It’s something that we think about in terms of enhanced reward in the reward system. However, based on what we know about adolescence, we already know that it is a time where adolescents seek out rewards, seek out things that are exciting, that might be risky. Some of that might be in social media, but some of it will be in other domains. Out of that research, we have seen the rise of concerns around how cell phones (mobile phones) are somehow causing a dopamine rush, but adolescents are seeking out those experiences in all kinds of places.
So, I don’t think that there’s reason to be overly concerned that it’s causing some sort of biochemical reaction in the brain that is hurting kids. We simply just don’t see that or don’t know that this is the case. I think in terms of the ‘likes’, devices are a way that the kids connect with their friends. It is the way that they’re social, and some of that can occur in a risky way. It can have negative effects for some adolescents, I’m sure, but we really don’t know that this is a big problem in terms of impacts on kids’ mental health.
ETS: Based on what your research is showing you then, how do we account for the stories we so often hear about how kids don’t seem to be able to put these devices away and are allegedly staying up all night or waking up two, three times a night to check their devices? Add to that all the research supposedly highlighting the negative effects of blue light and the impact that has on rest, and what are we seeing? Is there any validity to the idea that smart devices are having a detrimental impact on the development of kids or is it largely media hype?
Candice Odgers: I think every generation looks back at the last one and thinks they’re doing it wrong and doesn’t like the way that they’re spending their time, and there’s a lot of fear around this. The fear comes from a good place; we want good things for our kids, but on so many metrics, kids today are doing really well. We have historically high graduation rates. We have rates of violence that are declining, rates of substance use that are declining, costly issues like teen pregnancy are declining and rather rapidly in many contexts. So, the kids today on so many metrics are doing well, yet we’re fearful that we’ve destroyed a generation due to devices.
Now, the really interesting thing for me is looking at the level of fear and willingness to blame devices, despite the fact that when you look across all the studies that have been done so far, we have found very little by way of negative associations. For example, if we were to look at whether you’re lefthanded, or whether you wear eyeglasses, or even how many potatoes you ate in the last week, you could essentially find negative effects that are larger for those types of variables than they are for digital use, but we’re not having a conversation in the media about restricting potato consumption. So, what is it about the fear that we have around how kids are spending their time on devices?
ETS: Are we getting causation confused with correlation?
Candice Odgers: Probably. It’s not to say that we shouldn’t focus on device use; this is clearly a transformative experience in the lives of kids. Digital technology is not going away, which is one of the reasons we should really focus on it, but there are issues that are likely more important around kids’ use of devices other than an alleged effect on mental health, which we don’t see evidence for. So, things like protecting their privacy and security online, trying to figure out how every child has equal opportunities to learn, engage online, develop the skills we’re going to need in the digital age and providing that kind of scaffolding as adults of how to navigate these spaces in safe ways.
ETS: You said that we’re not seeing any real evidence around the detrimental effects of devices, but yet there seems to be a growing body of evidence that points to the fact that the relationships that kids are developing through devices using social media are leading to greater and greater instances of depression because those relationships are emotionally empty relationships.
Candice Odgers: It’s interesting. That’s a very powerful narrative and it’s wrong. In the research that I just talked about, these tiny associations with social media explain less than one percent of the variation in mental health, which means 99.5 percent of the reasons kids are suffering from mental health problems or experiencing lower wellbeing are due to something other than the reported media use, but this narrative has become extremely compelling, to the point that most people take it as true. And it’s largely because we’re scared. Depression, suicide, those are things that cost us kids’ lives. We want to know the answers with regard to what drives those behaviours.
As a developmental psychologist, I have been studying mental health problems in kids for the last 15 years. When I first saw this research, I was actually hopeful that we’d found it, that we’ve found some sort of contributor that we could identify and that we can control. Wouldn’t that be great! When I discovered that social media and smartphone use wasn’t actually a leverage point we could use stop the rise of anxiety and depression that we’re seeing in kids, I was in many ways disappointed. It meant that we had to keep looking. That the problem was more complex. What we don’t want to do, and must be very careful of, is allowing smartphones to be labelled as the cause of these issues at the expense of some of the real contributors.
ETS: As part of this online device space, I wanted to ask about gaming given that it is a growth industry, a huge part of many people’s lives and, once again, a hotly contested issue in the media. The prevailing belief is exposure to violent video games desensitises participants to violence, thus lowering their natural inhibition to violence, potentially even leading to an increase in violent behaviour. What has your research shown?
Candice Odgers: You don’t have to look at just my research. There have actually been national committees established in the US to evaluate the evidence based around this idea, in combination with large reviews of every kind of experimental design done in this space, and it’s simply not the case that watching violent video games or engaging in violent video games makes someone violent. That has unequivocally been the overwhelming consensus. Again, the kinds of mass shootings we have seen in recent years are horrendous acts. If we could identify a cause like gaming or a contributor like gaming, then that’s an easier target than these structural, deep problems that need to be addressed to prevent these kinds of acts.
ETS: Is it more the case then that these beliefs arise out of instances in which a person who already has an underlying psychological condition that makes them more predisposed to act in a violent way has been triggered by something like playing violent video games?
Candice Odgers: Yes, I think what you said is key. It is the predisposition in the first place. So, I think online video games, online activities, like anything else could amplify existing vulnerabilities, and we need to be careful and watch for that, but in terms of thinking about it as causing new cases, there just doesn’t seem to be the evidence to support that conclusion. Based on the review of the landscape that has already been performed, and there has been a lot of research on media exposure of violent gaming to date, the consensus is pretty clear.
ETS: Then, if the problem isn’t related to the use of smart devices, social media or exposure to violence in games and media, in what way is your research focusing on protecting children’s mental health in the context of technology?
Candice Odgers: The first part of my research is focused on everything we just talked about, addressing this narrative around devices, that all of our kids today are falling into this type of addiction, are falling into increased rates of violence, are suffering from depression and anxiety because of what they’re doing digitally, and to address that first by informing people that there simply isn’t any evidence to support those views. The second part of what I do focuses on, if not that then what? What are the real issues? What are the kind of real threats that are on the horizon that we should be paying attention to and what can we do to best support kids? Some of those issues relate to the fact that kids experience the online world in very different ways.
So, kids in low-income households, for example, spend three more hours a day on average on their devices, and what they’re doing on their devices is very different. So, it’s not necessarily doing homework or using it to support educational goals. They’re spending a lot more time with passive media consumption, et cetera, that might not have any direct benefit. They’re also receiving less parental help or less support from adults in terms of how to protect their privacy online, how to leverage technologies in ways that might support them.
So, the crux of what I focus on is understanding the kinds of inequity we see in terms of a group of individuals, a group of kids who are experiencing real benefits from using technology on the one hand, as opposed to kids who might be more prone to risk on the other hand. That’s the type of thing we need to focus on. We need to be thinking more about how we leverage the interest kids have in the digital world in ways that supports their development in the ways we’ve always wanted to have.
ETS: One of the things we often talk about in the magazine is the importance of getting students to understand the impact of digital footprints. In other words, the information trails that they leave online. Is this part of what your research focuses on?
Candice Odgers: This is really the heart of matter. Our concern is that too many people are looking in the wrong direction. Everyone is focused on an alleged connection between digital devices and mental health when the real issues and the real threats are, in fact, somewhere else. What we need to be focused on is security, privacy and understanding what kinds of interventions might be required and who might require them. Of course, we push these messages through the normal channels in terms of digital literacy, but that’s not going to be the whole solution. We’re going to need technological solutions to these challenges, ways to encrypt information to protect information, and this is a larger issue not just with kids, but with protecting civil society in terms of threats to democracy.
These are the big issues. The foundational and potentially catastrophic issues so, instead of looking over here, at what might be happening with kids and mental health when we continually find tiny associations and not a lot of evidence, let’s start to redirect our attention and focus on what the real threats might be.
ETS: It seems that many people, students especially, have lost their sense of privacy. They fail to understand, as an example, that when they are leaving school and looking for a job, one of the first things many employers will do is a quick online search to determine if this is the type of person they might want within their organisation.
Candice Odgers: Right, that’s called their digital dossier and one of the critical issues is around not just what this means for future work opportunities, but how children understand and consent to their information being placed online. So, even before they’re born, pictures of ultrasounds are often posted.
Parents post information on blogs and other places that contain sensitive genetic and or medical information about a child, that include photos or tags. So, this entire digital footprint or dossier is being formed for children before they have the opportunity to consent to the sharing and use of that information or control in any way how it might impact their future life or life chances.
ETS: It would seem, purely based on observation, that today’s students lack the same desire for or understanding of privacy that many adults might have.
Candice Odgers: Right. So, what we are potentially seeing is an evolving conception of privacy. It is an assumption that we make, and one that is probably true, but we need to know a lot more about how kids think about privacy. What does privacy mean to them, what are the risks associated with it? Only then can we, as adults, do that risk assessment. We know that kids, especially adolescents, don’t do the risk assessments in quite the same way. Understanding privacy as it moves and moves quickly across these digital spaces is going to be one of the key things that we need to figure out and figure out fast.
ETS: Yeah. So, what are the kinds of conversations that we need to be having in the classroom with students then?
Candice Odgers: I think one of the things that we can do is engage students more in the conversation. One of the things that’s been fascinating about this digital revolution has been that young people have developed a voice and a set of expertise so that you often see young people, children, teaching their parents and grandparents. Possibly even teaching their teachers about how to use digital technology, and not only does that bring in the digital immigrants – people who grew up at a time before the internet and before smartphones – but it provides a sense of competence for kids that they are the experts, that they are playing a role in teaching, which is a positive thing. So, I think making sure that there is a seat for youth at the table, it can also demystify some of the things that kids are doing online, which is really important. If you actually track and download all the things that kids do online, it’s less interesting than we as adults assume it is, and it looks more like what kids have been doing for a very long time in their friendships and the rest their daily interactions. So, some of it is just demystifying things that we can see and make big assumptions about as adults.
ETS: As an educator, if I want to be more informed around these sorts of challenges and better understand the issues, are there places that I can go to find some of the more pertinent research?
Candice Odgers: Absolutely. There is a researcher at LSE in the UK, Sonja Livingston, who has an amazing blog and resource available (https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/parenting4digitalfuture/). She’s done research in 25 different countries on these issues, has engaged youth as advocates, parents and families and she has a set of resources that are on there, on a blog. Common Sense Media (https://www.commonsensemedia.org/) puts out a lot of good information on this topic, targeted for parents and teens. One of the best resources that I’ve used as a parent and a researcher is a book called Media Moms and Digital Dads by Yalda Uhls, and she’s a researcher, a former Hollywood media executive and the mother of two adolescents. So, she provides all of these perspectives on how to really parent in the digital age. Those would be my first stops.
ETS: Great. In closing, if there was one takeaway from all of this for teachers and educators that have concerns around device use in the classroom and the amount that kids are spending on devices, what would it be?
Candice Odgers: I think it is this, the next time you’re by the water cooler or you’re having a conversation about a kid on his or her device and how it might be bad for them, stop and think about whether or not the phone is the issue or whether it’s something else. The next time you’re having difficulty with a student in the classroom, or even at home, about the amount of time that they’re spending online, start a conversation about what they’re doing online, what they’ve just seen online, what they might want to do with you online. So, open up those conversations and challenge those knee-jerk assumptions about what the online world might mean for our kids.