I recently finished the pop-science book 'Glow Kids', which is a reasonably compelling look at the damage screen culture is having on children. Unfortunately, the author was fooled by some fraudulent research.
Glow Kids and Screens Themselves
I think about quite a bit is the separation of hardware and software. Most research really focuses on the software level– app design and content. It's definitely true that dark patterns and design hacks are making the software landscape an addictive, cognitive landmine for all of us.
However, from the pioneering work of Michael Posner (the world's leading authority on human attention), we know that changes in motion and luminance drive the reorientation of our attention at a neurological level. Screens are an interface that embodies these two principles; by nature, they reorient and distract us from anything else that we might be focusing on. There are real problems with the screen itself, and I was excited to read a book that seemingly focused on this issue.
The book doesn't really focus on screens in themselves, but rather 'screen culture'. Within it, Dr. Kardaras includes interesting points that are worthy of further exploration. He makes a compelling case that the committing realistic, simulated violent acts might have negative repercussions (suggesting that Dr. Chris Ferguson, the main proponent that video games don't influence violence, fails to account for mediating variables in his epidemiological research). He dovetails this point nicely with his description of his video game addiction counselling work. The stories of dissociation and anger that accompany severe video game addiction are quite sobering.
He also weaves a compelling story about the infiltration of screens into the classroom despite all available evidence pointing to the fact that it is detrimental for student outcomes.
Slightly Questionable Reporting
Unfortunately it's hard to take the book completely at face value. He treats the possible health effects of electromagnetic radiation (EMF) with a dramatic flair than I believe is unwarranted. We don't have much strong data on this subject since ubiquitous EMF is so recent, and Dr. Kardaras is correct that we know that cell phones warm the tissue in the brain and that some evidence shows they increase the risk of brain glioma. This finding is controversial though; while there is some epidemiological support for it, there have been large studies that show no effects, and the jury is still very much out.
As Kardaras reports, a team of scientists working on behalf of the WHO did label EMF a Group 2B 'possible carcinogen' in 2011. But this label is best understood as 'can't be definitively ruled out for causing cancer'. For a long time, coffee also had the 2B designation (it was recently downgraded to Group 3); pickles and aloe vera still reside there. Red meat has a worse designation– 2A; processed meat falls in category 1. We don't have clear data either way, but that ambiguity means that even if a cancer risk is real, we can be confident it will be small. As far as we know, EMF is as dangerous as pickles.
Kardaras also correctly mentions that there are researchers associated with Harvard MGH investigating the link between EMF and autism. The primary author, Dr. Martha Herbert, is a neurologist and an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School; it seems fair to call her 'controversial', in that her views on causal forces driving Autism are not mainstream. She has a very holistic interpretation of the environmental drivers of autism; while she's not an anti-vaxxer, she does leave the door open for a causal pathway from vaccine to autism expression in her PBS NewsHour interview. Even with these things in mind, she herself would not lay autism at the feet of EMF.
I don't think these opinions are fairly contextualized or nuanced in 'Glow Kids', which is a shame. I expect it will stir an urgent sense of fear in its audience over a risk that is very, very mild.
A Bad Citation
The most interesting study that Dr. Kardaras cites in his book implies that our perceptual acuity has been measurably decreasing over decades— we can distinguish fewer shades of color, fewer sounds, etc– due to screen culture. He writes:
According to longitudinal research conducted by the German Psychological Association (GPA) in association with the University of Tubingen over a 20-year period, we are shockingly losing sensory awareness at a rate of 1 percent a year.
This research began in the 1960s after teachers working at the university noticed that, after the proliferation of television viewing in the 1950s, students seemed to suffer from a severe reduction in their sensory awareness; they appeared less alert than previous generations to information from their surrounding environment, which, in turn, was adversely affecting their ability to learn. The university then partnered with the GPA in order to quantify this phenomenon.
The researchers conducted sensory tests on 400 undergraduates per year over that 20-year period—a total of 8,000 subjects. The results shocked even the researchers; each successive cohort was slightly less sensitized than the prior cohort: “Our sensitivity to stimuli is decreasing at a rate of about one percent a year,” their report stated.
According to pioneering, visionary educator Joseph Chilton Pearce, author of Magical Child (1992), who wrote extensively about the study in his 2002 book, The Biology of the Transcendence: “Fifteen years ago people could distinguish 300,000 sounds; today many children can’t go beyond 100,000 . . . Twenty years ago the average subject could detect 350 different shades of a particular color. Today the number is 130.”
The linked paper quotes the study behind these numbers– a study conducted by psychologist Henner Ertel. I searched for any other research that would back up this claim and came up empty-handed; all roads lead back to this one article featuring Henner Ertel.
Unfortunately, there is no trace of Ertel in the peer-reviewed literature. His name does appear in two other places, though. It first appears in an article called ‘Sold for Stupid’, an article about Ertel's GRP– a fake, pseudoscientific research institute with two employees, known for mass producing fraudulent, sensational headlines on a wide range of research topics. The other result is Ertel's entry on a pseudoscience watchdog page.
Ertel has been the subject of a criminal complaint for his academic fraud. It further appears this sham psychologist threatened ‘Zeit Online’ with a defamation suit, and has a history of threatening scientists that question his validity with lawsuits of their own.
Ertel's fake organization is called the Rational Psychology Association (Gesellschaft für Rationelle, Psychologie, GRP). His 'relationship' with the University of Tuebingen comes from a direct quote by Ertel himself in the linked article above. As for the other author Dr. Kardaras cites directly– Joseph Pearce– his book contains the same paragraph almost verbatim, but with no citations.
Zeit Online reports that the main target for Ertel's fraud has been Men's Health magazine. It seems Ertel managed to fool the Waldorf Institute, Joseph Chilton Pearce, and Dr. Kardaras as well.
This citation is pretty unfortunate– when I clicked on the link for the article I was immediately suspicious. Dr. Kardaras fell prey to motivated research. It's too bad, because I agree with much of the thrust of the book, and Dr. Kardaras could have preserved most of his points without these bad citations. Instead, his readers are forced to check the sources and approach the text with a healthy dose of skepticism.