Here we go again. This weekend, British newspapers: The Telegraph, The Independent and The Metro (a paper given out free on public transport right across the United Kingdom) all ran with the same diabolically misinformed headline that, “Smartphones are making children borderline autistic.”
Ed Yong’s (justifiably profane) response sums up the feeling of anyone who has looked into headlines such as these before. The cheerleader for the “technology causes autism” hypothesis, professor Susan Greenfield has been handed smackdown after smackdown by experts in their fields including Dr. Ben Goldacre and professor Dorothy Bishop (and half of the scientists on Twitter). One particularly obvious flaw in Greenfield’s hypothesis was that autism appears long before children begin using computers (or smartphones for that matter) as Bishop explains:
“A cause has to precede its effect. This test of causality fails in two regards. First, demographically — the rise in autism diagnoses occurred well before internet use became widespread. Second, in individuals: Autism is typically evident by two years of age, long before children become avid users of Twitter or Facebook.”
Enter Iain McGilchrist, the psychiatrist who is collecting Greenfield’s “technology causes autism” baton. Like Greenfield before him, McGilchrist bases his entire case on nothing but the vaguest of anecdotes. Like Greenfield before him, he has done no research in this area whatsoever. Like Greenfield before him, the claims he is making are being made only in newspapers (rather than the correct place for a scientist to make such claims: a scientific journal). Like Greenfield before him, he fails to even cite any actual research, making his claims impossible to refute in the way we would normally refute an argument made by a scientist.
He does however make a single, extraordinarily vague reference to “research done in the US within the last decade that shows a decrease in empathy among college students and at the same time a rise in narcissism,” but unhelpfully fails to provide any actual citation. Pedro De Bruyckere, a Ph.D student at the University of Antwerp, has tracked down the research that (we can only assume) McGilchrist must be referring to. Unsurprisingly, the research doesn’t even remotely support McGilchrist’s claim — according to this research, the vague trends that McGilchrist describes began way back in the ’80s — long before the mobile phone, let alone the smartphone!
Incidentally, an enormous study of 19,993 Swedish twins just published in the British Medical Journal, found no evidence of any recent increase in the symptoms that are commonly associated with autism, once again attributing the changes in autism prevalence to administrative changes in how we diagnose and register prevalence of autism; providing yet more evidence (as if we needed more evidence) that this whole affair is one big wild goose chase.
It’s almost as if history is repeating itself.
Twenge J.M. Freeman, E.C. Campbell, W.K. (2012). Generational differences in young adults’ life goals, concern for others, and civic orientation, 1966–2009., Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102 (5) 1045-1062. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0027408
Lundstrom S., Reichenberg, Anckarsäter, A. Lichtenstein, P. Gillberg, C. (2015). Autism phenotype versus registered diagnosis in Swedish children: prevalence trends over 10 years in general population samples, BMJ, 350 (apr28 2) h1961-h1961. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.h1961