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Why screen time studies can’t measure the effect of smartphones on our well-being

What a new paper in Nature misses about the world smartphones created

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What is the correlation between screen time and adolescent well-being? It’s an important question for which we have limited and often contradictory answers. A story in Wired this week all but let our phones off the hook for any negative consequences — but I wonder if the study fully understands the way we live now.

Much of the research to date on the potential effects of screen time on well-being relies on self-reported data from massive surveys, Wired reports. The sheer amount of data available means that creative scientists can make nearly any argument about correlations, leading to widespread confusion about the truth.

In the latest issue of Nature Human Behavior, researchers Andrew Przybylski and Amy Orben apply a novel statistical method to this problem: a tool called specification curve analysis that lets them evaluate many thousands of possible correlations simultaneously. Here’s Wired’s Robbie Gonzalez on their findings:

The result was a series of visualizations that map the wide gamut of potential effects researchers could detect in the three repositories, and they reveal several important things: One, that small changes in analytical approach can lead to dramatically different findings along that spectrum. Two, that the correlation between technology use and well-being is negative. And three, that this correlation is very, very small, explaining — at most — 0.4 percent of the variation in adolescent well-being.

To put it in perspective, the researchers compared the link between technology use and adolescent well-being to that of other factors examined by the large-scale data sets. “Using technology is about as associated with well-being as eating potatoes,” Przybylski says. In other words: hardly at all. By the same logic, bullying had an effect size four times greater than screen use. Smoking cigarettes? 18 times. Conversely, getting enough sleep and eating breakfast were positively associated with adolescent well-being at a magnitude 44 and 30 times that of technology use, respectively.

What’s immediately striking about these findings is the way in which the researchers separate bullying from “screen use.” The data collected pertains to children who were born in the year 2000 or later. While surely bullying continues to happen offline, it has a major online component as well. (An anti-bullying initiative in Australia found that 84 percent of children who had been bullied offline had been bullied online as well.) Bullying and screen use are linked, in other words — but this paper has no means of separating them.

I searched the study for more information about the data it evaluated, and was surprised at how fusty the whole thing feels. The categories of screen use data collected include whether the child owns a computer, plays “weekday electronic games,” watches “weekday TV,” or “uses the internet at home.” These categories might be useful in longitudinal studies comparing a 1980s childhood to a 2010s childhood, but they hardly capture the rich variety of screen time a young person today might encounter. (There is a category for “hours of social media use,” which feels as relevant today as ever. )

But for the most part, these are pre-smartphone data categories being applied to a post-smartphone world. It seems fair to question whether any analysis of the data, no matter how statistically rigorous, can reflect the individual or collective effects of screens on our psychology or behavior.

Last month, writing about the Yellow Vest protests in France, Max Read lamented “theoretical discussions that imply the possibility of some counter-historical ‘control world’ without Facebook.” Facebook’s existence has exerted influence over us for more than a decade now, he argued, making it all but impossible to conceive a present-day world in which it never happened.

I wonder if smartphones aren’t like that, too. The majority of phones shipped globally have been smartphones — which is to say, phones that have internet access — since 2013. Trying to quantify a singular “effect” of smartphones on well-being, in a world where they are ubiquitous, strikes me as naive. Smartphones changed the way we meet romantic partners, send nudes, navigate through cities, buy drugs and alcohol, and spend time with our friends, to name just a few of their consequences. Good luck reducing all that to a variable.

In some ways, smartphones seem to have been quite good for young people — teen pregnancy rates are down, for example, and along with the rate of adolescent drug abuse. A popular theory here holds that teens are spending more time connecting with friends at home using screens and less time out in the world making mischief. At the same time, online bullying remains a scourge of every platform. (Did you know 42 percent of teens report being bullied on Instagram?) And if you believe that social platforms have contributed to the spread of hate speech, or the rise of far-right populism, or the radicalization of young minds, how do you factor that into a statistical account of well-being?

Wired’s headline, echoing Przybylski, reads, “Screens might be as bad for mental health as ... potatoes.” And yet reading the study, I’m far less certain. The data certainly seem to indicate what Przybylski suggests. But I’m not sure this data really answers the question we want it to — or whether the researchers even asked the right question to begin with.

Democracy

Leaked memo spells out Facebook’s new ‘ground rules’ restricting employee discussions about politics and religion

How hot is employee chat at Facebook? Today I learned, thanks to this good find from Rob Price, that the company has engineers assigned to the task of moderating internal employee discussions. It also has (eminently reasonable) new guidelines for internal employee debate:

“We’re keeping it simple with three main guidelines: Don’t insult, bully, or antagonize others. Don’t try to change someone’s politics or religion. Don’t break our rules about harassing speech and expression,” the 43-year-old technology exec wrote. […]

The changes indicate that as Facebook attempts to reform itself, it is taking a stronger approach to its historically open employee communication platform, and is investing in new moderation controls. “These guidelines apply to all work communications including Workplace, email, chat, tasks, posters, whiteboards, chalkboards, and face-to-face. Since Workplace is where most of these discussions happen, we are investing engineering resources there,” Schroepfer wrote.

Facebook is committing $300 million to support news, with an emphasis on local

Last year, Google donated $300 million to local news initiatives. Today Facebook announced it would do the same. The basic idea is to wean publishers off of display advertising, where Google and Facebook have a duopoly, and get them to become self-supporting through subscription revenue. Nieman Lab talked to Campbell Brown, who runs journalism initiatives at Facebook:

BROWN: Coming out of the accelerators, we found out of all the various investments we were making that this was a bright spot. Publishers were seeing some promising results. For example, The Denver Post had a 172 percent increase in digital subscriptions after the accelerator, the Miami Herald saw three times growth in the number of readers hitting the three article limit between March and June based on a test they did.I want to be clear that we have a ton of work to do here, but it is work we are committed to because it does seem to be yielding some real progress and we’re pretty excited about it.

With that in mind, it became clear that we should invest much more in the accelerator so we’re increasing that amount to about $20 million a year. We’re going to try to expand them, both in terms of the area of focus — so we did subscription acquisitions to start, we did a video accelerator in Argentina, we’re doing a membership accelerator right now — but also where we do them, like doing some in Europe where we want to add to. This will become a much bigger program and area of investment for us.

These Facebook Pages Are Spending Thousands Of Pounds Trying To Influence Your Views On Brexit

Theresa May’s Brexit proposal failed on Tuesday, but it wasn’t for a lack of Facebook ad spending, reports Mark Di Stefano. As usual, there are questions about who’s really behind these groups.

According to Facebook’s records, We Are The 52% has spent almost £12,000 in the run-up to Tuesday’s vote, often running videos featuring pro-Brexit celebrities criticising the government’s deal.

And like the others, We Are The 52% links back to a simple website, which doesn’t feature any specific information about how the group is funded. It only claims to be “edited” by a social media consultant with extensive links to the Conservative party named Theodora Dickinson. She did not return requests for comment.

Tech think tank proposes “grand bargain” on privacy, but Democrats aren’t buying it

A policy think tank supported by Google, Amazon, and Facebook has a new proposal out for national privacy legislation. The proposal would repeal every previous piece of privacy legislation, Makena Kelly reports. This seems dead on arrival:

But the “bargain” would also preempt state laws like California’s new privacy act, and repeal every other existing piece of federal privacy legislation, including landmark laws like Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). Every sector- or issue-specific privacy law would be removed, and state and local lawmakers would be unable to draft stricter, more specific regulations in the future.

The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) would be one of the repealed laws. It was authored by Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) in the late ‘90s, and IT was one of the first pieces of legislation governing the collection of data. The law imposes requirements on companies when it comes to collecting data on children under 13 years of age, which has become a sticking point for a number of tech companies. Both Google and Facebook have been sued multiple times for violating COPPA, and the law is one of the main reasons many web services cut off at age 13.

Ajit Pai Refuses to Brief Lawmakers Over Phone-Tracking Scandal, Dubiously Blames Shutdown

The House Energy and Commerce Committee wanted Ajit Pai, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, to brief them about recent revelations that telecoms like Verizon, the one he used to work for, have been selling our real-time location data for years. Pai refused to show up, citing the government shutdown.

Fake Porn Videos Terrorize Women. Do We Need Laws to Stop Them?

Jeff John Roberts explores potential legal solutions for victims of deepfakes:

New criminal laws could be one way to fight deepfakes. Another approach is to bring civil lawsuits against the perpetrators. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation notes in a blog post, those subjected to deepfakes could sue for defamation or for portraying them in a “false light.” They could also file a “right of publicity” claim, alleging the deepfake makers profited from their image without permission.

All of these potential solutions, however, could bump up against a powerful obstacle: free speech law. Anyone sued over deepfakes could claim the videos are a form of cultural or political expression protected by the First Amendment.

Elsewhere

Roku adds Infowars six months after other platforms ban channel

Infowars has been struggling for distribution since most of the big platforms collectively banned it last summer. Recently it popped up on the streaming TV service Roku, which comes preinstalled on many new televisions. (Including mine!) The official statement says it bans “the publication of content that is unlawful, incites illegal activities or violates third-party rights, among other things.” For the Roku executives who subscribe — and there are some — I hope you’ll take time to read my column from last summer, in which I described how Infowars has historically incited real-world violence. (Just before press time, Roku announced it would delete Infowars from the service.)

YouTube’s guidelines now address dangerous pranks following Bird Box, Tide Pod challenges

It’s now officially against YouTube policy to blindfold yourself and eat TidePods for views and / or advertising revenue. Progress!

The company revealed new policies that creators must follow when uploading content, and one of the biggest changes is a section dedicated entirely to dangerous pranks. YouTube has previously addressed pranks in its harmful and dangerous content category of its overall policies, but seems to have added the new section following a series of disturbing Bird Box challenge videos.

YouTube creators have a history of participating in dangerous challenges — including Jake Paul driving blindfolded to participate in the Bird Box challenge, teens eating poisonous Tide Pods for the Tide Pod challenge, and even some creators alluding to drugging their girlfriends on camera with natural sexual enhancement pills — all in the name of content.

Snap CFO Tim Stone resigns after eight months

Here’s another embarrassingly brief tenure for a senior Snap employee. No word on why he left, though the company took pains to say in a legal filing that Stone had not uncovered evidence of massive accounting fraud. So, silver lining!

Stone’s departure follows a string of other top-level exits in the past year, including chief strategy officer Imran Khan in September, and finance head Andrew Vollero and vice president of monetization engineering Stuart Bowers in May.

Instagram caught selling ads to follower-buying services it banned

Josh Constine goes hunting for Instagram accounts promising various shady services that purport to sell followers or verification — and finds that Instagram is taking their ad dollars, despite an official ban on the practice.

Instagram has been earning money from businesses flooding its social network with spam notifications. Instagram hypocritically continues to sell ad space to services that charge clients for fake followers or that automatically follow/unfollow other people to get them to follow the client back. This is despite Instagram reiterating a ban on these businesses in November and threatening the accounts of people who employ them.

A TechCrunch investigation initially found 17 services selling fake followers or automated notification spam for luring in followers that were openly advertising on Instagram despite blatantly violating the network’s policies. This demonstrates Instagram’s failure to adequately police its app and ad platform. That neglect led to users being distracted by notifications for follows and Likes generated by bots or fake accounts. Instagram raked in revenue from these services while they diluted the quality of Instagram notifications and wasted people’s time.

Launches

Instagram product designer creates nostalgic, tech-inspired AR effects for users

I dig the Windows desktop filter here, created by an Instagram product designer.

Facebook launches new podcast that focuses on aspiring entrepreneurs, business leaders

Facebook’s latest content-marketing initiative is a podcast about the company’s primary buyer of ads: small businesses.

YouTube is testing new recommendation bubbles that appear under videos

Julia Alexander reports on a new avenue for recommendations inside YouTube:

YouTube is testing a new recommendation format for both mobile and desktop users that use blue bubbles to suggest keywords, creators, and related topics to help browse through videos.

Screenshots obtained by The Verge show these blue bubbles in action. They appear just underneath the video player, and the idea is to help users filter recommendations. These are more specific recommendations than the videos that appear off to the side. The feature is currently being tested with a small set of people on both YouTube’s main desktop page and mobile apps.

TikTok is giving China a video chat alternative to WeChat

ByteDance’s latest effort to dethrone WeChat is called Duoshan, Rita Liao reports. She calls it a mix of TikTok and Snap:

Unlike TikTok, which incentivizes users to follow celebrities and strangers, Duoshan is built for private messaging. It offers a dazzling selection of special effects and filters, as most other short-video apps do these days. The twist is that videos disappear after 72 hours to provide stress-free, off-the-cuff sharing, a need that WeChat also noticed and prompted the giant to come up with its own Snap-like Stories feature recently.

Takes

Facebook’s 10-year glow-up challenge reminds us that Facebook used to be fun

Everyone is posting before-and-after photos from 2009 to today — a phenomenon that launched on Facebook and reminded us of a simpler time, Julia Alexander says:

Universal adorable awkwardness is only part of what makes the challenge endearing. There’s a sincerity in photos from 10 years ago. Facebook profile pictures from 2008 and 2009 were different from the over-the-top aesthetic we practiced at the time on Myspace. There was a feeling of intimacy on Facebook for teens. We truly believed that only our friends saw what we were posting, and that level of comfort let us post whatever we wanted. Digging through my Facebook photos was like diving into a treasure trove of happy memories I wouldn’t dream of posting today.

There are photos of me making grotesque “funny” faces while sitting on the subway with friends, photos of me with bread rolls stuffed into my mouth, photos of me planking on my car in the middle of my school parking lot while wearing camo shorts. Needless to say, these aren’t photos I would ever dream of throwing on Tinder if they were taken today. But that’s just it: these types of photos are taken today, but I don’t post them anymore. I’ve learned that whatever I post online, even in a closed group, can spread far beyond my control.

All the President’s Memes

Willy Staley explores the strangeness of having a 73-year-old president posting memes to Instagram:

This incentive structure, in which an easily distracted person says a bunch of stuff he kind of means to an assembled audience, slowly learning what generates a reaction and what doesn’t, is familiar: It’s like posting online. This is the process that nudged the wall ever closer to reality, despite the fact that it was only ever supposed to be a metaphor, a shorthand, a catchphrase. It is an idea with no real owner or creator, passed from person to person, from lectern to grandstand to TV and Twitter and back again, copying itself and growing and mutating until it became big, beautiful and tipped with spikes forged from American steel. The border wall is, in the truest sense, a meme: an idea that persists not because it will benefit us but simply because it thrives in our environment. It was so effective at doing whatever it did that it couldn’t be contained, spilling out of the president’s brain and spreading throughout our entire body politic, cooling and hardening like bacon grease, until it finally brought everything to a standstill. And I hate to admit it, but that is a little funny.

And finally ...

THIS IS IMPORTANT: If You Take A Selfie Through A Toilet Roll You’ll Look Like The Moon

Dave Stopera reports that if you take a selfie through a toilet roll, you’ll look like the moon. You should do this and let me know how it goes!

Note that it also works with dogs.

Talk to me

Send me tips comments, questions, and toilet roll selfies: casey@theverge.com.