How researchers get heard
Abstract lines

Left to Our Own Devices

Screen time research is poised to become the next nutrition research:

  • A slow-motion war of public claims and counterclaims,
  • Based on conflicting studies and shifting definitions,
  • That will confuse everyone,
  • Devolving into the public ignoring the science, and
  • Science as a whole once again losing credibility.

Yes: spending too much time online is bad for us. Many researchers say so, as well as the World Health Organization.

No: there is essentially no connection between screen time and well-being. The research that says there is is “spray and pray.” And that research is feeding a media-scholar-pundit fear industry.

But wait: there really isn’t even such a thing as “screen time,” and we are just beginning to understand how we even interact with this stuff.

All this research and debate is playing out in the media. No one is keeping score. Attention will go to the groups with the best media relations and TED talks.

But I think science should and can be better. Or rather: Smarter.

For instance: Andrew Przybylski, the director of research at the Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford, is one of the leading researchers saying there’s no evidence prolonged screen time influences our psychological or behavioral problems.

He’s articulate, well-messaged, and his latest study on the lack of link between teens’ time spent on digital devices and lower wellbeing got a lot of press.

But when you go to the OII site, you won’t get a comprehensive sense of the larger conclusions into which Przybylski’s work and thinking feed.

You don’t understand that he’s one of the foremost research-based thought leaders on one of the most-discussed social questions of the day.

And, crucially: you won’t begin to understand:

  • The state of research into people’s relationships with screens,
  • What that body of research’s deficiencies are,
  • What the scientific consensus is about any aspect of it, and
  • What the questions are that remain unresolved and unexplored.

Instead, you get a bunch of his opinion pieces, some of his new research, a CV page with links to some blog posts.

And you have to put it all together yourself.

That’s research’s message to the public today: We publish findings, all over the place and in inaccessible places. You assemble the meaning for yourself, yourself.

And we wonder why we’re misunderstood and undervalued.

People don’t need studies, and media coverage of those studies. They need resources about what research says.

One-stop shops that tell us what the state of research play is on issues we care about. And research-based thought leadership as capital, upon which everyone can draw.

Nutrition research has failed in this, completely.

Screen research has a chance to be different.

Of course, to assemble the resources I’ve outlined above on the state of research into people’s relationships with screens — essentially, to curate and summarize what is known and what is not known, along with summarizing Pryzbylski’s findings and opinions on the state of that research and what the public and policymakers should take away from it — would not be a trivial undertaking.

But imagine the benefits.

The benefits to OII, in being the recognized curator of the state of knowledge.

The benefits to the public, in helping define a debate that otherwise will sprawl for years in the media, leaving us to our own…devices.

It’s easier, as Pryzbylski might put it, to spray and pray your findings in the literature and the media. And hope you make a dent.

Harder but smarter to assemble your thought leadership capital into a durable resource.

Takeaway: On which question can you assemble a research-based thought leadership resource to inform the public, the private sector, and/or policy?

And how might you do that and market it to make impact and differentiation for your organization?

I’ll be writing more on models for this work. Let me know if you need help thinking your situation through.