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.

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