Journalists ≠ Scientists

16 Jan 2012

Sharon Kirkey, for Postmedia News:

Results of a new study suggest people who cannot control, cut back or stop their use of the Internet have abnormal white matter structure in the brain similar to what is seen in cocaine and crystal-meth addicts.

No.

Stop it.

Just. Stop it.

What do you mean when you say “the Internet”? Are we talking about the habit of getting caught up in Wikipedia or TV Tropes? Do you mean the sharing sleeping kitty .GIFs? Is accessing your Dropbox folder the same Internet-based task as playing Farmville for ten hours straight? How about having a Skype conversation with your partner from whom you are away for months at a time?

I have not read the entire study as there are portions of it that require knowledge that I do not have, but the study itself is not my problem;1 I am bothered by the media coverage. More specifically, I am frustrated with the notion that this paper has introduced some incredible revelation to the medical or psychological community.

This study is preliminary and the only conclusion that can be drawn from it is that more studies will have to be undertaken to determine anything. The authors are well aware of this and stated so within the section titled “Limitations of the Study”. The only place that I was able to find that bit of information was within the paper itself. The media reports also conveniently ignore that the study places marijuana and alcohol exposure on par with “Internet abuse”. Why? Because it goes against the stereotypical narrative that “Internet people” are somehow defective or ill.

I do not deny that there are behaviours one can exhibit via the Internet that are harmful and even addictive – it may have to be taken on faith that I know better than some regarding the ease with which one can cross the line separating healthy and harmful habits – but most of the media has made no effort at all to acknowledge that “Internet addiction” is not truly a diagnosis and instead is a symptom of existing conditions.

It is lazy journalism and it is irresponsible. Are those responsible aware of this? Of course they are. The media regularly saturates us with sensational stories that have little support and even less backing. It is done because the immediate payoff is huge and there are almost no consequences for deceit.

  1. This is how science works: theses are tested and retested. Papers are written and analyzed. Results, methodologies, limitations are all examined, criticized, and examined again. The authors of this paper are doing their job by submitting the paper to be critiqued by their peers. Other studies will be undertaken. Flaws will revealed, resolved, and then removed in the next attempt. New methods will be attempted.