Opinion

Professor Ben Ambridge: We need to fight false notions taking hold

Moral crusades based on consensus thinking are nothing new. We need to fight now more than ever, says Professor Ben Ambridge

Over a hundred years ago, the composer John Philip Sousa warned against what he called ‘The Menace of Mechanical Music’. Sousa was concerned that with the advent of recorded music (specifically Thomas Edison’s phonograph, an early gramophone), mothers would no longer sing their children to sleep.

As a result, continued Sousa, children will either stop singing altogether or become “human phonographs – without soul or expression”. “Then what of the national throat? Will it not weaken? What of the national chest? Will it not shrink?” Sousa meant well, of course. But what if we had listened to him, and decided to ban or severely restrict this emerging technology?

No Buddy Holly, no Beatles, no Bowie… Even a hundred years ago, moral panics over new technologies were an old phenomenon. More than two thousand years ago, Socrates warned against the dangers of writing: by removing the need for learners to use their memories, writing – he argued – would “create forgetfulness in [their] souls”. Socrates, too, meant well but it’s a good job we ignored him. Far from being a pernicious influence on mankind’s development, writing has given us everything from great literature to contract law to The Big Issue and our website that you’re reading right now.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to dismiss Sousa and Socrates as cranks or Luddites. There’s no way that, in the 21st century, well-meaning public figures would issue evidence-free pronouncements on the evils of modern technology based on personal hunches backed up by little to no evidence.

On Christmas Day, a group of authors, educators and academics, led by Sue Palmer, author of Toxic Childhood, published a letter in The Guardian warning against the danger to children of “increasingly screen-based lifestyles” and called for “national guidelines on screen-based technology for children up to the age of 12, produced by recognised authorities in child health and development”. At first glance, this seems like a perfectly sober and sensible suggestion. Nobody is talking about banning anything, and what parent wouldn’t appreciate a few helpful rules of thumb?

On closer inspection, however, the very notion of guidelines rather strongly implies that screen-time is inherently a bad thing. We issue guidelines telling people to smoke and drink less; not to limit the time they spend reading, writing or listening to music. So is screen-time a bad thing? As a reply from a group of senior academics pointed out a week later, it is currently impossible to say.

More than two thousand years ago, Socrates warned against the dangers of writing

First, it is a mistake to lump together all screen-based activities, which range from playing games and watching cat videos on YouTube (presumably the types of activities the crusaders want to limit), to Skyping with relatives, reading e-books or even doing homework (presumably activities that they would encourage). But even if we were somehow to narrow down our definition, there is simply no good evidence – i.e., evidence from tightly controlled experimental or longitudinal studies – that the ‘wrong kind’ of screen time has any negative effects at all. Like Sousa and Socrates, Palmer is doing nothing more than whipping up a moral panic.

Modern-day moral panics are not restricted to screen time. There is no shortage of commentators lining up to claim, again with no hard evidence, that sexting, easy access to pornography and apps such as Tinder are rendering entire generations incapable of forming meaningful relationships (sample title: Pornified: How Pornography is Damaging Our Lives, Our Relationships, and Our Families). Other modern moral panics do not simply lack evidence but fly in the face of it.

Witness, for example, the increasing drive to ban e-cigarettes from everywhere that traditional cigarettes were long ago stubbed out. The evidence suggests that e-cigarettes are far less harmful than the tobacco variety, and are effective as a quitting aid. This leaves concerns that e-cigarettes ‘normalise smoking’ (one recent study found precisely the opposite) looking like nothing more than a cigarette paper-thin veneer on a moral crusade.

This approach – since I personally disapprove, such-and-such must be a bad thing, and the evidence be damned – is the defining characteristic of moral panics, including those whipped up by Donald Trump and certain Brexiteers: immigration is bad because I say so, and I won’t let the evidence tell me anything different, we’ve “had enough of experts”. Indeed, since his election, Trump has shown a healthy disregard for evidence by appointing both climate-change sceptics and anti-vaxxer Robert Kennedy Jr, who along with the president believes the debunked notion there is a link between vaccines and autism.

Another common thread is the conviction that the concerns being raised are just common sense

Another common thread is the conviction that the concerns being raised are just common sense: of course it isn’t good to be sat in front of a TV/hooking up on Tinder/smoking an e-cigarette (particularly if you’re doing all three at once), and anyone who says otherwise is simply being wilfully obtuse.

If you have some sympathy with this point of view, you should know that – when they are actually tested – ‘common sense’ ideas can prove to be spectacularly wrong. Perhaps most famously, a systematic review of Scared Straight programmes, based on the common-sense idea that showing kids what prison is like can only prevent them from offending, found that it actually made them more likely to do so.

Similarly, a study published in The Lancet last year found that having teenage girls care for baby-simulator dolls, an intervention based on the common-sense idea that such an experience would surely deter them from getting pregnant, served only to encourage them. Finally, what common-sense advice would you offer a dyslexic child who wanted to put in nine 80-minute stints of Rayman Raving Rabbids (an action-based Wii game)? Get back to the books? Well, a 2013 study found that such an intervention boosted dyslexic children’s reading age by, on average, more than a year.

The lesson is: well-meaning moral crusaders beware. If you make evidence-free recommendations and – God forbid – persuade governments to actually follow them, you could well end up doing more harm than good.

Ben Ambridge is Professor of Developmental Psychology at the University of Liverpool and the ESRC International Centre for Language and Cognitive Development. He is author of Psy-Q and Are You Smarter Than a Chimpanzee?

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