Digital World Research-What It Tells Us About Causation vs. Association

On a fairly regular basis I hear presenters and parents cite research results about technology and 21st Century kids. Often they justify their points by making comments such as “According to research,” or “Research demonstrates that…”

causationassociationSome time ago, for instance, I heard a presenter comment that too much use of digital devices causes students’ lack of concentration, and she cited a university research study. Trouble is, when I subsequently checked out the research, it was based on 25 participants — a small number on which to form a conclusion and make assumptions about a dramatic outcome. After I read the abstract, I discovered that the researchers who conducted the study concluded that the outcome is an association with kids’ lack of concentration and not a cause. The data did not indicate that too much technology causes a lack of concentration.

The difference between association and causation is significant, and parents as well as those of us in the educational technology community need to recognize the difference. Much of our accumulated data about technology outcomes are collected over a short-term, and in many areas we have no data collected long-term. Television statistics are the exception, because after years and years of well-designed, science-based studies, the causal connection between television viewing and childhood behaviors is only now being firmly established. That’s because enough data exist to enable researchers to draw firmer conclusions about how TV screen time affects certain childhood problems.

We will need a many more years of data collection before we can really reach sound conclusions about causation — that is, what action is causing a particular technology or digital device outcome. Because we are not scientists or researchers, our understanding of association and causation is one of the most important skills we can use when we look for data to support our points of view.

As parents and teachers of digital natives, we may be deeply frustrated that we cannot firmly sort out the problem-causing factors associated with media and digital tools, not to mention whether or not these tools effectively support learning. For example, does extensive texting (the media) between people who are standing nearby one another other cause a decline in face-to-face communication (outcome) or can we only say that it is often associated with the outcome? Or do specific social media sites cause more bullying or are they associated with increased incidence of bullying?

Today, when we see young people and especially our children enjoying the digital world and connecting with resources in so many novel ways, we are simultaneously delighted about their skill and worried about the extent of their access. Do children really learn more effectively with these devices, we wonder? Is the ability to connect with almost any type of information a benefit or a curse? Over the short-term we can’t really determine the answers for sure — though we can learn a lot from observing children — but over time researchers will demonstrate stronger and stronger relationships with as more methodologically solid research studies are conducted.

So when you read a study about children and technology — and want to share the conclusions authoritatively with others — ask yourself a few questions. The answers to these questions will determine whether the results are worth citing.

  • Who are the researchers? Are they affiliated with well-known research institutions?
  • How many participants did they study?
  • How are participants selected? Random selection is the strongest.
  • How are the data collected?
  • Over what period of time were the data collected?
  • Have researchers established a control group to compare with their experimental group?
  • Do the researchers use the word association or associated when they describe their results?

Three Places Where I Look to Find Examples of
Good Quality Research on Children and Digital Life
(I’ve taken parts of these descriptions from the organization websites.)

— The Center for Media and Child Health (in Boston) offers an extensive web-based database of  science-based studies of search organized for easy or detailed searching. Visitors can use the Guided Search page to search by different digital media, age group, and outcome. Individuals more familiar with research exploration can use the advanced search  to identify study information by text, age group, publications type, study design, and year. I find this is one of the best places to identify university research studies and especially media-related research findings from articles published in pediatric medical journals.

The Pew Internet and American Life Project  The Pew Project’s reports are based on nationwide random phone surveys, online surveys, and qualitative research. The Project produces reports exploring the impact of the internet on families, communities, work and home, daily life, education, health care, and civic and political life. I pay close attention to Pew Survey results via Twitter.

Hart Research Associates – Hart Research also conducts research through random sampling, telephone interviewing, focus group moderating, and other statistical  methods. Hart usually gets assignments and preferences from clients and then designs and develops the research studies to meet those needs. Several organizations that I respect have commissioned Hart Associates to answer questions about technology, kids, media, and digital life.

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