Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Social media and bad decisions

In his famous dialogue Phaedrus, Plato puts the following words in Socrates's mouth:
If men learn [writing], it will implant forgetfulness in their souls.  They will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. 
What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder.  And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only the semblance of wisdom, for by telling them of many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much while for the most part they know nothing.  And as men filled not with wisdom but with the conceit of wisdom they will be a burden to their fellows...
You know, Phaedrus, that is the strange thing about writing, which makes it truly correspond to painting.  The painter’s products stand before us as though they were alive.  But if you question them, they maintain a most majestic silence.  It is the same with written words.  They seem to talk to you as though they were intelligent, but if you ask them anything about what they say from a desire to be instructed they go on telling just the same thing forever.
I'm always reminded of this every time I hear the "kids these days" schtick from People Of A Certain Age, about how young adults are constantly hunched over their phones and rely on Google and don't know anything because they can look it up on Wikipedia.   Back In Our Day, we had to go to the library if we wanted to look something up.  On foot, uphill, and in the snow.  And once we got there, find what we were looking for in a card catalog.

That was printed in freakin' cuneiform on clay tablets.

And we appreciated it, dammit.

You hear this kind of thing aimed most often at social media -- that the use of Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, and so on, not to mention text messaging, takes people away from face-to-face social interactions they would have otherwise had, and the current ubiquity of this technology is correlated with depression, poor relationship outcomes, and even teen suicide.  The evidence, however, is far from rock solid; these correlations are tenuous at best, and even if there are correlations, it's a long way from proven that the use of social media caused all of the negative trends.

My (admittedly purely anecdotal) observations of teenagers leads me to the conclusion that the number of truly internet-addicted kids is small, and that social, well-adjusted kids are social and well-adjusted with or without their cellphones.  And I can say from my own socially-isolated childhood that having a cellphone would probably not have affected it one way or the other -- even if I magically had Facebook when I was sixteen, I probably would still have been the shy, lonely kid who spent most of his free time in his room.

[Image is in the Public Domain]

That's not to say there aren't some interesting, if troubling, correlations.  A study published recently in The Journal of Behavioral Addictions looked at the connection between social media use and performance on the "Iowa Gambling Task," a simulation that is used to pinpoint impaired decision-making in situations like heroin addiction.  The authors write:
Our results demonstrate that more severe, excessive SNS [social networking site] use is associated with more deficient value-based decision making.  In particular, our results indicate that excessive SNS users may make more risky decisions during the IGT task...  This result further supports a parallel between individuals with problematic, excessive SNS use, and individuals with substance use and behavioral addictive disorders.
The trouble with the study -- which, to be fair, the researchers are up front about -- is that it's a small sample size (71 individuals) and relied on self-reporting for measurement of the daily duration of social media use for each participant.  Self-reporting is notoriously inaccurate -- there have been dozens of studies showing that (for example) self-reporting of diet consistently results in underestimates of the number of calories consumed, and participants have even reported calorie intakes that are "insufficient to support life" without any apparent awareness that they were giving the researchers wildly incorrect information.

So self-reporting of the number of hours spent on social media?  Especially given the negative press social media has gotten recently?  I'm a little suspicious.  The researchers say that their experiment should be repeated with a larger sample size and up-front monitoring of social media use -- which, honestly, should have been done in the first place, prior to publishing the study.

But even so, it's a curious result, and if it bears out, it'll be interesting to parse why Facebook use should be correlated with poor decision-making.  These sorts of correlations often lead to deeper understanding of our own behavior, and that's all to the good.

But now that I'm done writing this, y'all'll have to excuse me so I can post links to today's Skeptophilia on Facebook and Twitter.  You know how it goes.


This week's Skeptophilia book recommendation is about a subject near and dear to my heart; the possibility of intelligent extraterrestrial life.  In The Three-Body Problem, Chinese science fiction writer Cixin Liu takes an interesting angle on this question; if intelligent life were discovered in the universe -- maybe if it even gave us a visit -- how would humans react?

Liu examines the impact of finding we're not alone in the cosmos from political, social, and religious perspectives, and doesn't engage in any pollyanna-ish assumptions that we'll all be hunky-dory and ascend to the next plane of existence.  What he does think might happen, though, makes for fascinating reading, and leaves you pondering our place in the universe for days after you turn over the last page.

[Note: if you purchase this book from the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]

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