Based on the specious data collected from a new Stanford University study, researchers have determined that girls between the ages of 8 and 12 who spend "considerable" time using social media are likely to be "less happy" than their unplugged peers.
The Stanford researchers have admitted that the study might have a few holes, since the results are based on a survey given to a limited sample of 3,400 girls and responses weren't followed up on or monitored by researchers. Why, you might ask, wouldn't researchers trying to prove or disprove a hypothesis follow up with or monitor the responses? Because the survey was conducted online, silly, a crucial fact that undercuts whatever comparison researchers were trying to draw between heavy and light users of social media. (Strangely, boys were excluded from the study altogether, which might give the Men's Rights people something to yammer about this week.)
On the New York Times' Bits blog, author Matt Richtel identifies some of the study's crucial shortcomings, namely, that the researchers weren't able to determine from the results whether social media attracted girls who were already "less happy" or if it decreased their happiness, nor were they able to verify the age of any of the participants and so might just have 3,400 responses from one forty-year-old World of Warcraft player who cruises Discovery Girls magazine when the game's servers are down. After the peer-reviewed study appeared Wednesday in the academic journal Developmental Psychology, other academics raised concerns that the online format of the survey not only prevented researchers from verifying their data but also narrowed the sample size to possibly exclude lighter media users.
Nevertheless, scientists agree that the study raises some interesting questions about the role increasingly faceless modes of communication play in social development. Clifford Nass, the Stanford professor of communication who led the study, said that the impetus behind his group's research was the possible impediment social media creates to face-to-face interaction, which teaches kids how to read body language and subtle facial and verbal clues. He further explained that,
Humans are built to notice these cues - the quavering in your voice, perspiration, body posture, raise of an eyebrow, a faint smile or frown. Social media, he added, leaves the conversation two-dimensional. "If I'm not with you face to face, I don't get these things. Or, if I'm face to face with you and I'm also texting, I'm not going to notice them.
The various layers of face-to-face interaction can be compressed when rapid-fire social media takes its place, and while the Stanford study might be a good starting point for figuring out to what degree decreased face time may be affecting the social development of children growing up in the digital age, it's methodologically flawed because it singles out girls as particularly susceptible to social media's alienating effects. It also fails to adequately encompass all forms of social media, which can just as easily take the form of Facebook, texting, and Twitter as it can online RPGs, in which vast communities of avatarized people find their primary outlet for social interaction (those games, by the way, have been around for a longer time than Facebook and traditionally attract a male). On the other hand, maybe the very methodology of the study itself proves that when people, say, scientists, substitute passive information gathering on the internet for face time, they miss out on key pieces of information that could seriously alter the meaning of the message they receive.