The Need for Nuance: A Conversation with Amy Orben

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This article is part of our special issue “Connected State of Mind,” which explores the impact of tech use on our behavior and relationships. View the complete issue here.

As sensationalist headlines circulate on the same social networks they condemn as harbingers of a tech apocalypse, Amy Orben has emerged as a clarifying presence. Orben, a social media researcher at the University of Oxford, combines psychological insights, experimental methods, and big data to better understand how we form relationships with others on social media. She has urged us to slow down, build a solid evidence base, and improve the public conversation so that it can better inform, policymakers, parents, and journalists alike.

In our conversation with Orben, she explains what we do know about the effects of social media usage, addresses pervasive truisms in the public debate, and outlines a path forward for understanding how the social media that has become a part of relationships and day-to-day lives impacts us. In short, she argues that we need to let science, properly executed, take its course—and that takes time. 

DJ Neri: There’s been a lot of discussion about “tech addiction” lately, whether it’s comparing our use of technology to addictive drugs or merely talking about the effects of social media on our lives. You and others have questioned the robustness of some of the evidence cited in these discussions, because of the methodology or because the effect sizes that exist are often small and not as meaningful as people claim. Could you summarize a few ways that the evidence does show that social media is impacting our lives?

Amy Orben: Well, any large change that occurs in society, like the rise of digital technology, will impact our lives. There have been large-scale studies showing effects, for example, of technology use on the well-being of children. And I think there is naturally a growing base of evidence that there are both positive and negative effects of technology. But, at the moment, it is very difficult for us to use this evidence to come to conclusions about general trends and effects because we don’t have the necessary depth of research. We don’t have the depth of research necessary to drill down into specific effects, and then we don’t have the breadth of research necessary to examine technology use as a whole.

Currently we’re looking at the effects of tech use in too broad a sense—it’s like arguing whether eating is bad or good for you. To determine the effects of eating we need more information. We need to know how we eat, what we eat, and I think that this nuance is missing from current research about technology use. Only when that nuance is present can we really generalize and start understanding whether there is a general effect in this or that direction.

DJ: Is there enough research to know what specific facets of social media, even if it’s suggestive, are potentially positively impacting our lives? Or potentially negatively impacting our lives?

AO: It’s hard to say at the moment, but I think that there is evidence that there are two main ways that we can use technology like social media. We can use it actively, which means that we interact with friends, we send them messages or photos. And then we can use it passively, where we just scroll through the newsfeed and read other people’s posts and look at their photos, etcetera. I would say that there is evidence pointing in the direction that passive use has more negative outcomes than active use. There have been studies following users and checking up on them every few hours, and they have shown a slight negative effect of this passive use. So, this shows that nuanced research is important; we see that the effects of technology recorded really depend on this nuance.

Currently we’re looking at the effects of tech use in too broad a sense—it’s like arguing whether eating is bad or good for you.

DJ: Do you think that there are any widely held conceptions about social media that you feel are either false or unsupported by evidence?

AO: I think that there are a couple of things that are becoming truisms in public debate. For example, that social media gives us a dopamine kick and that causes addiction. Firstly, I don’t know of any studies that show a clear-cut link between social media use and dopamine release. Studies that would show this are very difficult to design. Also, the link between dopamine and addiction is hotly debated. But disregarding this lack of clear evidence, it is important for us to remember that anything pleasurable gives us a “dopamine kick” or increases dopamine in our brain. Using that as an explanation for social media use is quite circular, in that eating a slice of pizza will also give you that increase in dopamine levels and therefore we like eating pizza.

I think another truism is that social media is decreasing well-being across the board. I don’t think the evidence exists yet that we can say that. This question is definitely in the public eye and the public debate is skewed towards the notion that social media is really increasing depression and decreasing well-being. But I feel that we should be cautious in saying that this notion is scientifically underlined. I’m not going to counter people’s anecdotal evidence and personal stories, but I would say that public debate and scientific evidence are two very different things.

For example, a study by colleagues of mine did show that there is an optimal amount of technology use for children, where above a certain amount of tech use well-being slightly decreased. But they actually also found that eating breakfast had a three times more positive effect than using social media had a negative effect. So, the effect is again nuanced, and needs to be appraised critically.

DJ: I had heard you mention that and it was very interesting to me because you don’t hear as much conversation about the importance of a good night’s sleep, which is extremely robust in the scientific literature, or even eating breakfast. 

AO: You are right! I think what we’re missing in research at the moment is a very nuanced overview of technology’s effects that clearly outlines the effects of technology use and compares the magnitude of these effects, maybe, against the effects of sleep, the effects of eating behaviors, the effects of parenting behaviors. I think that that would give the public a much broader understanding of what the effect of technology actually is, and how worried they need to be about it.

I think what we’re missing in research at the moment is a very nuanced overview of technology’s effects.

If there is still scientific debate about a certain topic—and the effect of technology use is a topic where there is clear scientific debate—we should provide the public and policy makers with a balanced overview of both sides of the evidence. As researchers, we could try to refrain from trying to tell a story, and instead provide the public with the necessary nuanced information so that they can make up their own minds.  You know, if scientists don’t make up their minds or argue with each other, that’s fine, that’s what scientific debate is for. But then I think that we need to make sure the public knows about this debate and provide them with the information so that they—and journalists—can come to their own conclusions.

DJ: It seems that in your view the evidence doesn’t quite justify the strong public reaction to “tech addiction” or our use of social media. I’m wondering if you have any theories about what might be driving this reaction or if it’s comparable to any other technological or social changes that we’ve seen in recent times?

AO: I think the public reaction is justified in that we are always cautious about any major change that comes along in society. I was just looking this up the other day, but, in the 1500s when the printing press came along, we had an almost identical discussion about the consequences of information overload and what information overload is going to do with society. There was a huge amount of research done on social bonding when the television came into the household and people started asking whether that was going to corrupt the social bond between people. Fear of change and a fear of the consequences of change are always driving discussions. I think the public isn’t to blame for moral panic, because we see this comes up all the time and is deeply connected to human nature. But, science shouldn’t use this wave of concern to gain further impact or attention. What we should be doing is providing the evidence so that people can make up their mind, and not feeding an already flaming fire.

I think the public isn’t to blame for moral panic, because we see this comes up all the time and is deeply connected to human nature. But, science shouldn’t use this wave of concern to gain further impact or attention.

DJ: Do technology and social media affect us all equally, or is it more dependent on individual personality traits—maybe things like neuroticism or extroversion? Are there any personality traits that make people more susceptible to maybe being “hooked” by tech, like we’ve heard in a lot of anecdotal examples of people’s tech addictions?  

AO: Well, naturally, tech is going to affect people in different ways. We’re all different. But I wouldn’t lean out the window now and say something about certain people being affected more or less. What I can say is that Professor Sonja Livingstone in London has been arguing that we really need to think about not just the tech we use, but the context, content and connections that come with it. The complete environment that we use technology in. And that can change over time, even for the same person. So, I think what we’re really looking at is a heterogeneous activity that depends on the person, depends on the environment, depends on the actual activity—and there you see, it gets so complicated that it becomes quite difficult for us to determine how one person is going to react to a certain use. Just like it’s very hard for us to determine how each different person reacts to a certain food they eat. And I think that we’re far, far away from having that quality and depth of research to be able to predict how certain people are going to react to certain kinds of tech use.

DJ: Do you have any worries that tech companies may actually have a better understanding of what is actually motivating people before researchers or the general public does, just by using the machine learning algorithms and other ways to target specific messages in an automated way before the effects are fully understood?

AO: Well, I think technology companies have a huge research budget, and they can use their data freely. We at universities are not only limited by funding; we’re also limited by access to data in that technology data is behind closed doors most of the time.

So, I think it would be fair to say that the technology companies have the opportunity to actually understand things to a greater extent than scientists at universities. If they already do so or not, is very hard for me to judge. So, I would say yes, the opportunity is there. I sometimes think if the tech companies would give just a very, very small fraction of their profits to research we could probably answer the big important questions about the effects of tech use just in a couple of years to a very definite standard, and do very, very good science.

Technology companies have the opportunity to actually understand things to a greater extent than scientists at universities.

DJ: I’m sure that some people, when they’re reading this, will undoubtedly think, “I use social media a lot, but I never really post myself. I’m just observing other people.” Are these social media observers affected differently than those who post often? Is their posting behavior just a manifestation of their personality in a new online form?  

AO: The first thing that I would say to a person who doesn’t post a lot, is that you’re probably not in the minority. You’re very much, probably, in the majority.

There has been evidence that using social media more passively might have more negative effects, but again we need to put that all into that large spectrum that research like that doesn’t know why people are using it passively, doesn’t know exactly the motivation behind it, the person behind it, what they’re seeing. And so, I wouldn’t make the flat-out statement that, “you use social media passively, so you’re probably getting depressed from it.” I think that would be multiple steps too far. So, we have the start of evidence that passive use might be more negative, but again, it’s hard to generalize.

DJ: So, if you were advising me on how to use social media in a way that would enhance my life, is there anything based on the evidence that you would be able to tell me to do, or tell me to avoid?

AO: Due to the problems with evidence I discussed previously, I wouldn’t be comfortable giving recommendations on how to use social media to enhance your life. But, others, for example the Children’s Commissioner in the UK, that is mainly responsible for advising parents and advising schools, have a whole team that looked at technology use and put together something called a “Digital 5 A Day” campaign. The campaign has gotten both negative and positive appraisal, but the important things is that it doesn’t just look at screen time, which would be me telling you: “Don’t use it more than a couple hours a day, and don’t use it passively.” Instead, the campaign focuses on making advice more nuanced, and recommends that we need to look at the connections that children are forming online, we need to look at what exactly are they doing. Are they using it to explore new opinions, explore different areas? Because naturally this is incredibly valuable and there are a lot of things that come out of social media that are incredibly valuable.

What I would advise is if there is no evidence, or if the evidence isn’t firm yet, probably trust your instincts.

What I would advise is if there is no evidence, or if the evidence isn’t firm yet, probably trust your instincts. A lot of what they were saying in this “Digital 5 A Day” campaign really makes a lot of sense in that they are looking at what are the motivations for technology use. What exactly are you doing? Does it seem to make a positive impact or a negative impact in the life of you or a child? And using your own instincts to appraise how much, and what activities, you should do online. Like with eating. I think probably there are some very certain rules that are very much based in common sense, which will help you along just fine.

DJ: What research areas excite you the most and what questions do you feel really need to be answered?  

AO: Many things excite me at the moment. One of them is that there is a wealth of data out there that we can analyze, to answer some of the public’s most pressing questions. Yet there is a problem with analyzing this wealth of data. People sometimes say that you can tell any story with statistics if you use it the right way, and this is especially true when you have large quantities of data. As scientists, we will need to find new ways of ensuring that we don’t misuse ‘big data’ to tell our story, but give accurate representations of effects and effect sizes. This will mean doing our work in a truly open and nuanced way, constantly trying to implement the best practice statistics. It also means making sure each research step is communicated properly to the press and the public.

People sometimes say that you can tell any story with statistics if you use it the right way, and this is especially true when you have large quantities of data.

I also think there’s so much space for online research in the coming years. With more and more young researchers starting their careers, the research space will continually evolve, as new scientists will have already used social media for, probably, most of their lives. This will bring with it new points of view and new levels of understanding that will really affect the research landscape.

DJ: One final question: how would you like to see the current debate around social media usage change?

AO: I think the debate needs to be improved; just like many public and media debates need to be improved. Firstly, debates need to rest on a solid evidence base. There needs to be a push of open and reproducible research that, instead of trying to tell (and sell) a story, tries to truly represent the effects of social media on various measures of well-being. This also means comparing the sizes of these effects to other effects (e.g. the effect of smoking or sleep), to give an accurate representation of how large the effects actually are. In addition to new research being produced, there also needs to be a critical appraisal of past peer-reviewed and non-peer-reviewed work.

I think that research needs to present people with the evidence that is out there, in a clear, open and balanced way.

To improve debate, we also need to agree on terminology and definitions. This means making sure people agree on key terms. What is an addiction? What is depression and how is it measured? What do we need to say there is a causal link between two measures? Lastly, we need a fair and civil debate; a debate that does not seek headlines or sensational stories. A debate that listens to people who are worried, puts these worries into perspective and then thinks about how to best invest time and public money to make the population happier and healthier.

I trust people’s judgment, whether they are parents, policy makers, politicians, or journalists. I think that research needs to present people with the evidence that is out there, in a clear, open and balanced way. If there is still scientific debate on an issue, we should give people the chance to make up their own minds. If science moves in this direction, we’ll have better, quicker and more sustainable progress.