Thursday, 7 May 2020

Smartphones within Psychological Science: It's on

Writing academic books has become somewhat less fashionable in psychology, but I’ve always been encouraged to do things I genuinely want to do rather than be completely guided by the REF, TEF or KEF etc. That advice has always stuck with me. 

The book is now almost finished pending some minor edits and a bit of copyediting. I am aware that a few early versions of the manuscript have gone out to some folk who might say something nice for the back cover.

Pretty much all the content is new and, I hope, as up-to-date as a book can be. Some of it naturally pulls ideas from a handful of recent papers. On a side note, it's been an interesting experience to wrestle permissions from publishers so I can re-use portions of text or figures from my own papers!




Publication is penned for later this year (update September 2020: you can buy it now), but in the meantime here are three general things that have stuck with me throughout the course of putting it together. 

1. I'll start with the positive. Mobile technology is letting psychologists make exciting advances in almost every area of the discipline. Cognition, personality and social psychology are the real highlights, but this often extends beyond psychology and demonstrates clear benefits of interdisciplinary research. I've read so many papers where I find myself muttering 'I wish I had thought of that'. 

2. On the other hand, theoretical and methodological misalignment remains a grand challenge. For example, smartphone interactions that might support positive health interventions, but which could also drive a negative outcome remain distanced. They are considered by a completely different set of researchers under different theoretical frameworks despite obvious overlaps in the application of the technology. Similarly, from a methodological perspective, the gulf is arguably even wider. Research that considers how smartphones might limit cognitive functioning for example, appears to be separated from groups who have developed apps that can test cognitive functioning!

3. Psychology has a tendency to obsess about why new technology is harmful and then struggles to be involved productively when it becomes a key component of everyday life. This cycle then loops. Genuine harms are very real and include issues that pertain to unequal access, cyberbullying, misinformation and security vulnerabilities, but these are not specific to smartphones. They are universal and are as relevant to software developers as they are to behavioural scientists.  

I offer a few suggestions on how these problems might be mitigated in the future although several recent pre-prints with smarter colleagues already feel like they are light years ahead. 

Kaye, L. K., Orben, A., Ellis. D. A., Hunter, S. C. and Houghton, S. (2020). The conceptual and methodological mayhem of “screen time”. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17 (10), 3661, https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17103661

Satchell, L., Fido, D., Harper, C. A., Shaw, H., Davidson, B. I., Ellis, D. A., Lancaster, G. L. J. and Pavetich, M. (in press). Development of an Offline-Friend Addiction Questionnaire (O-FAQ): Are most people really social addicts? Behavior Research Methods, https://doi.org/10.3758/s13428-020-01462-9

Shaw, H., Ellis, D. A., Geyer, K., Davidson, B. I., Ziegler, F. V. and Smith, A. (in press). Quantifying smartphone ‘use’: Choice of measurement impacts relationships between ‘usage’ and health. Technology Mind and Behavior

Davidson, B. I., Ellis, D. A., Bowman, N. D., PhD, Liveley, G., Shaw, H., Przybylski, A. K., & Levine, M. (2019, October 7). Avoiding Irrelevance: The manifestation and impacts of technophobia in psychological science. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/b9f4p

Davidson, B. I., Shaw, H., & Ellis, D. A. (2020, March 1). Fuzzy Constructs in Assessment: The Overlap between Mental Health and Technology ‘Use’. https://doi.org/10.31234/osf.io/6durk




* * *
However, one big problem remains.

A small, but vocal number of researchers in the area of technology effects have a track record of peddling utter bullshit. Anyone reading this far will have already generated their own list. 

Those last few sentences didn’t make it into the book I’m afraid, but the mantra of ‘technology is the biggest public health problem ever because because’ is being very publicly exposed. 

It is not simply the result of highlighting poor research practices, but something more profound. I wish I had seen it before.

Many have simply ceased to be scientists.

When scientists disagree or are provided with evidence that contradicts an existing theory or viewpoint, it might be disappointing, but it should advance the field. We are all in a privileged position. We get paid to think carefully and hopefully learn something along the way.

Over the last 24 months, two response patterns have emerged from those who are challenged. Rather than engage, discuss or collaborate in an adversarial fashion you get the following responses.

Pattern (a) involves ignoring everything and saying the same thing - alone or with other authors. Often on an industrial scale. It’s the equivalent of a child putting their fingers in their ears and shouting louder to compensate.

Pattern (b) is a form of token based engagement, but somehow manages to do (a) at the same time. Quite a remarkable skill, but also not very scientific. I continue to be amazed at the volume of stuff that gets past peer review although based on publication dates, it's obvious that some work hasn't been reviewed at all.

As a result, screen time or 'smartphone addiction' debates are often no longer discussing theory A versus theory B.

To borrow a line from a colleague, psychology finally has it's very own version of flat-earthers.

Ironically, social media has done more to expose these issues, which is just as well because it sure as hell isn’t journal editors, the BPS or the APA. 

Social media can perpetrate misinformation, but also expose it for what it is. In the vast majority of cases, any effects of mass communication technology on people and society are unlikely to be uniform. 

That last sentence did make it into the book. 

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