Mainstream media still has an important role in people’s lives. Therefore, the words they use and mass-spread must be carefully selected and weighted. While mainstream media don’t necessarily tell us what to think, they do tell us what to think about. Not sure about the under 30s but whatever the media platform or news source they follow, the theory perhaps still stands.
In the case I address here, both may be true – a long-established medium may lead its followers what to think and what to think about. When the discussed issue pulls an emotional string – the influence could be particularly striking. One case in point is parents reading news related to their children. Academics sometimes see media’s exaggerated reactions to “the activities of particular social groups” (Marsh & Melville, 2011, p. 2) as contributing to societies’ ‘moral panics’.
A recent feature on the Times of Malta introduced two studies conducted in Malta in relation to Internet use among under 30s. One of the studies focused on 13-16 years of age. It looked at the prevalence of problematic Internet use “with special attention to this age cohort’s engagement with Internet for entertainment” (NCFA, 2017, p. 3). The second study focused on ages 18-30 with focus on problematic Internet use among them.
The Times’ feature took the essence of the studies in rather unflattering and unfair direction with questions such as “mental health problems… by clicking?” and unrelated discussions of the number of selfies one takes only to take the interviewee to his answer-to-all-worries advice that youngsters should find balance in life by picnicking outdoors on a Sunday.
I would like to clarify two things with this post: First, to highlight the important findings of these two studies. And second, to emphasise that mainstream media have the responsibility to give credible and objective view of all the evidence. Moreover, parents and other stakeholders in a child’s life are less likely to get hold of these detailed studies and spend days crunching the information to something meaningful. Instead, they would see this video and may simply worry or…panic.
The studies clearly state the methodology (quantitative), the sample size (869, aged 13-16 and 1,507, aged 18-300), the limitations from the methodology used (quantitative can only give so much), and the findings (getting to it).
To begin with, the studies emphasise that people should not be drawing premature conclusions to a highly contentious and far from being a disorder, issue. They outline the American Psychiatric Association’s (APA) introduction of “Internet gaming disorder” only as tentative. The studies look at online gaming and the use of social networking sites (SNS) only.
As an overture, I read the classification in APA’s latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) to double-check if ‘Internet addiction’ exists in any form or kind. The classification of problematic Internet use falls under “Conditions for further studies” (p. 725). If one reads further, APA associate this ‘disorder’ with associated diagnoses such as depression, attention-deficit, hyperactivity and obsessive-compulsive. This means that problems may have already existed before Internet gaming came along.
Moreover, reports pointing to more cases of this ‘disorder’ mainly come from Asian countries. Evidence across the US and Europe vary widely and significantly, leaving the final conclusions whether problematic Internet use is a disorder pending. The two Maltese studies fairly outline these details.
Another key aspect that was never present in the Times’ feature is that APA (2013) makes clear of the widespread misunderstanding (perhaps media also have the responsibility here) between ‘addiction’ and ‘dependence’. In the latter case, tolerance and withdrawal are not considered normal responses to, say, prescribed medications that affect the central nervous system and don’t necessarily indicate the presence of an addiction. As the empirical studies begin, the “Internet has become one of the major necessities in life in almost all countries” (p.vi). However, that does not de facto make its users addicts.
Other important points and conclusions from the two studies, omitted in the Times’ feature, include:
- The two studies talk about ‘experiences’ rather than ‘symptoms’;
- The two studies clearly state, quoting APA, that individuals with an inclination towards addictive behaviour may demonstrate addictive behaviour towards the Internet. Relatedly, if one feels lonely and isolated, as one of the studies clarifies, they are more likely to look out for entertainment, pleasure or escape boredom by going online. Therefore causality (a person becomes depressed and lonely because he/she spends ‘problematic’ time online for ‘entertainment’) is out of the question. At least it can work both ways.
- The studies fairly clarify that even those youngsters coming from loving and supportive families may fall within the problematic user category. In short, complex matters cannot be generalised and simplified with a sentence, less so with a word like “addicted”;
- 45 of the 13-16 year-old participants were ‘problematic users’ from the whole sample. However, the issue with 14-year-olds, those most problematic from the 45 individuals, also experience cognitive developmental changes and their behaviour is a lot more complex than it deserves to be simplified as being ‘addictive’;
- Internet use for entertainment and online gaming is about the only angles the studies take on, leaving huge questions in terms of the quality of such use. Entertainment can encompass all kinds of things. One may be running a blog or an app or an Instagram page and be feeling out of control or ‘addicted’ to it and spending hours on end because of the feedback he or she gets from his or her audience and so on; while the use of internet for entertainment encompasses SNS and online gaming, today’s youth watches all their shows online, chats on fan forums dedicated to their favourite shows and watches other gamers play to learn from them and so on. These are crucial details that the studies don’t really address at this point and neither does the Times’ feature. However, such details could easily explain the hours these youngsters spend online…or not.
- What these two studies tell us is that more research is necessary, including qualitative, which can provide richer results in terms of the nature of online engagements;
- While those at-risk (the third category) – 134 participants from the researched population aged 13-16 – may be a cause for alarm, as well as the 45 problematic users, this certainly does not mean much at this stage because very little is known with regards to the quality and quantity of their activities online. The figures relate to use of SNS but, again, the data is not detailed enough as one may spend a lot of time on Twitter or Instagram for many and various purposes which must be identified and then looked with concern or not;
- It was very logical to see that those more excessive users were more likely to be single and unemployed as the study on 18-30 year-olds concludes. Since no other qualitative information is available for those individuals, the study says that one may assume that it’s only logical to see that unemployed people may have more time on their hands.
Pointing out to such details can contribute to a more balanced view of the findings.
The studies reveal information about problematic use, risky use, dependency on digital media and so on and society, and stakeholders in a child’s life in particular, must take a heed more so in terms of the complexity of the situation rather than look to simplify the situation in a word. Furthermore, a quantitative methodology can only give so much. Statistics give some information but not much depth and detail about the lives the surveyed people live.
What’s more worrying is how media may take on such highly complex matters, turn the debate around and cause panic or start a movement when using serious terms loosely.
The average family will never spend a whole day reading such studies to understand what exactly they mean. The least a mom or a dad could do is trust what and how mainstream, well-established medium lays out a summary of the findings, perhaps with a hint of its own version of analysis. If that’s the case, then there should be a clear display of the findings and a balanced and a sensible way of their discussion.