It makes important points about the need for awareness and regulation, but these are often supplanted by alarming tropes that don’t reflect what we know from decades of research into digital technologies. If left unchallenged, they can cause unnecessary worry and distract us from important conversations about how we can improve technology.
As digital media researchers, here are some of the claims that we think people should be careful about.
Digital technology and ADHD
While it’s wise to prevent young children from spending all day on digital devices, the documentary’s suggestion that digital device use causes ADHD in children is questionable.
The neuroscientist interviewed about this notes that studies have found “correlations” between digital device use and ADHD diagnoses, but the documentary never explains to viewers that correlation doesn’t equate to causation. Children with ADHD may be more likely to use digital devices than digital devices that cause ADHD.
Even more important, longitudinal studies have searched for evidence that device use causes ADHD in children and have found none.
There are other reasons why the science here is far less convincing than the documentary suggests. studies those who find these correlations often use parents’ estimates of their children’s “screen time” to measure technology use.
This method is now considered by some experts to be a almost pointless measure of the use of technology. Parents’ estimates are: usually inaccurateand “screen time” combines many different technologies into one concept without regard to the content being viewed or the context of use.
The trope of pseudo-compounds
Another key focus of the documentary is the idea that online interactions and relationships are not real and have no value. There are claims of “pseudo connections” leading to poor mental health and increased loneliness.
Overall, the documentary suggests that online communication is fake and harmful, while face-to-face interaction is real and helpful.
This widely used trope ignores decades of evidence about the value of online interactions and relationships. Keep in touch with friends and family abroad, find people with shared interestsand political organization and activism are all meaningful online interactions.
It is especially important to recognize that online friendships and interactions can be crucial for LGBTIQ+ youth. These young people are suffering disproportionate rates of suicide and mental illness. However, studies have repeatedly shown that digital communication tools such as social media provide valuable sources of emotional support, friendships and informal learningand are ultimately linked to improved mental health.
Strangers on the Internet?
Mirror Mirror pays close attention to the dangers of children interacting with strangers online. The most alarming claim on this subject is that today the majority of childhood friends are strangers on the internet.
However, research has consistently shown young people mainly use social media to get in touch with people they already know. However, other types of online spaces, such as gaming platforms, are also accessible to children and encourage interactions between strangers. Serious damage can come from these kinds of interactions, although it’s important to remember this is less common than you might think.
A world-leading European Union study of children’s internet use gives a more balanced picture. It found that most kids don’t interact with strangers online and when kids meet friends from the internet in person, it’s usually a happy experience.
The study highlights that while talking to children about risk management is important, meeting new people online can have benefits, such as finding friends with similar interests or practicing a foreign language.
The anonymity trope
In the second episode of the show, Sampson states that anonymity is “perhaps the biggest killer of empathy” in Internet communications. The documentary never defines anonymity and frames it as almost exclusively negative.
While anonymity can be part of how people harm online, forcing people to use their real names Not automatically make them behave better.
Research has also shown Online anonymity is used for many different purposes, including positive ones. It can reduce online damage such as: doxxing and enable consensual sexual interactions. It can also make people experiencing marginalization feel comfortable using the internet without fear of retaliation.
Mirror Mirror is too quick to view anonymity as the root of online abuse rather than one of many contributing factors. It is important that we do not lose sight of these other factors, especially the social context of misogyny and racism in which online abuse occurs.
The real problems
The documentary features some heartbreaking stories from parents, youth and women who have suffered devastating harm online. These are real problems and, as Sampson points out, the responsibility for solving them rests with tech platforms, regulators and educators.
We wholeheartedly agree and welcome discussions about regulating big tech and developing awareness and education campaigns.
But we would like to see a more practical discussion about: how platforms need to change, and less sensational claims and implicit critiques from individual users.