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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Digital Parenting: Recently Released Research from Northwestern University

Media & Family Conflicts

One of many charts and graphs in the report.

A new study, Parenting in the Age of Digital Technology, was recently released by Northwestern University’s Center on Media and Human Development. The 52-page report is easy to read and chock full of interesting graphics and charts.

Data were gathered through a survey of 2,326 parents whose children were eight years old and younger. The surveys were conducted in English and Spanish. Check out page nine of the report for more information on the methodology of the research project.

Most Interesting Report Findings (more are available in the report)

  • A large number of the parents in the survey do not believe that increased use of media has made parenting easier.
  • Most parents in the survey did not report many or significant family conflicts around media use.
  • There continues to be a big gap between those who can afford new digital devices and those who cannot afford them.
  • The study identified three types of parenting styles when it comes to family media use.
    1. Media-centric family life centers around various types of screens, and parents as well as children enjoy using media a lot of the time.
    2. Media moderate family life includes less media access, and the television is turned off a lot more of the time. Video games are not as important to daily life as in a media-centric family.
    3. Media lite family life includes screen time but less than the other two parenting styles. They tend to do to less television watching as a family, and they do not use television to distract children so that parents can accomplish other tasks.

The blog at the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop also describes the study in detail.

Evaluating Websites: Be Sure of the Quality

When we were students we learned to write content-filled essays and reports. Our teachers taught us to introduce the important facts, facts we discovered using quality reference materials. With today’s websites a student follows the same rules, but reliability is a significant issue. While it is easy to find sites with information about a topic, identifying reliable and significant information is more of a challenge. The trick is to identify information that indicates whether or not a site is a reliable resource. Do not let your child use a site as a resource unless it is possible to determine its quality.

Many websites look both real and reliable, but they are bogus. A fun website to explore is at based at the Western Australia Province Department of Education. It features bogus websites designed to look accurate and authoritative. Except that they are not accurate or authoritative. Take a few minutes to explore. Better yet, explore them with your children.

Evaluate the Web Sites that You Use

Be sure you use sites with accurate and reliable information. If you have a research project or your child has a homework assignment plan to evaluate each website to ensure its quality. Also please read the following tips describing how to evaluate web-based information.

Ten Tips to Ensure that the Information is Useful and Accurate

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