Why Clickbait Is Destroying Civilization

This morning, while getting my eight year old son ready for school, a headline on my Facebook news feed caught my eye. Having seen it pop up several times over the last few months, shared by very concerned friends and family, I decided to take a close look. The title certainly grabbed attention: “It’s ‘digital heroin’: How screens turn kids into psychotic junkies”. I glanced up nervously as my son wandered over the computer, wondering if it was time for an intervention before he hawked our TV for bitcoin or sold our organs while we slept to score better digital hit.

Then I shook my head and let him log on. Don’t get me wrong: I know that there are very real concerns around excessive exposure to technology, especially for children. I am in no way suggesting that we shouldn’t be very careful, intentional, and involved with when, where, and how our kids engage with technology. The pace of technological advancement is far outstripping our ability to measure the impact, thus the legitimacy of some concern.

That said, this article represented some of the worst clickbait tactics we see online.  For the uninitiated, clickbait refers to online content that is designed to be sensational, shocking or provocative, usually for the purposes of attracting attention and driving traffic. While it is often only the headline that uses the tactic, it is not uncommon for the rest of the content to also adopt these methods (such as the article above, but we’ll get into that a bit later). Most often, the tactic drives traffic for the purpose of revenue and/or publicity.

Many of these clickbait articles, while annoying, are fairly innocuous. After all, if the link promises the funniest pictures you’ve ever seen, yet fails to deliver, you’ve wasted some time and learned a lesson for next time. My concern, on the other hand, is when this tactic is used in delivering more critical information. And what could be more serious than the health and well-being of children? Let’s look at the above mentioned article as an example.

First, the headline itself should makes us stop: “It’s ‘digital heroin’: How screens turn kids into psychotic junkies”.  The article lead refers to screen time for kids as “digital heroin”. That’s a terrifying claim, especially for anyone who has seen the impact of heroin on a person. However, with the phrase in quotes, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt that more context will be provided in the article. The second phrase, however, is inexcusable, claiming that excessive screen time can turn kids into “psychotic junkies”. While a literal defining of each term might be argued as accurate (i.e. someone suffering from a severe mental disorder which manifests itself in compulsive or addictive behaviour), the vernacular use of each term (on their own, let alone together) betrays the sensationalist intention.

The article itself is just as bad. While a full exploration of the piece would be especially damning, it would also be tediously long. So, while (again) acknowledging the underlying legitimate concerns behind this issue, let’s just pick some examples of the dangerous tactics used in the article:

  • Addiction: The language of addiction is consistently used in the piece, most often referenced in comparison to substance abuse (i.e. drugs, specifically heroin and meth). The problem is that the comparison is a weak one in most ways. While there are commonalities with respect to compulsive use and specific neurological similarities, the over all physiological and psychological dynamics and more pointedly consequences between these two behaviours are significantly dissimilar. It should be noted that “Internet Gaming Disorder” is still listed under the research appendix of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), while Substance Abuse Disorder is firmly recognized as a condition with significant peer reviewed studies behind it. This last point is critical. Many argue that there are many studies proving the claims we see in this article. However, most such studies were not peer reviewed. Those that were peer reviewed demonstrated a significantly higher level of clarity and balance in the reporting, namely balanced and legitimate concern and call for caution and more research. That the author of this piece has not participated in a single peer-reviewed study to back his own claims is problematic.
  • Universalizing Extremes: Shortly after we adopted our son from Ethiopia, a local radio news program did a report on international adoption, featuring a story about a child with such severe attachment disorder that he was placed in a full-time psychiatric facility. The piece highlighted the high levels of attachment disorder in such adoptions, ending with a crying mother’s warning to other prospective adoptive parents. Within hours I began to receive emails from people concerned for us.
    While attachment disorder is quite common in certain adoptions, it is most often something that caring and intentional families can handle, especially considering that most such families already understand that adoptions bring special challenges. What was most dangerous about the report, however, was that it not only universalized the experience of attachment disorder, it universalized the most extreme example of the condition. The article above does the same thing, highlighting a supposedly “catatonic” child as the main example of the risk of screen time. In truth, with the huge number of children who are spending too much time in front of the screen, the number of extreme cases like this is very small. This does not negate the concern, but such a fear tactic lends itself to disproportional responses to the problem.
  • The Vaccination Effect: We have seen this approach result in disproportional responses before. The anti-vaccination movement has very similar roots as this movement. I am not comparing the benefits of vaccinations with the benefits (or draw backs) of tech time for kids. Clearly the latter has saved millions of lives. However, the comparison is helpful insofar as we can see how huge movements can form around unsubstantiated claims, where potentially legitimate concerns are taken to unnecessary (and in the former case) harmful ends. The result has been that people increasingly fail to discern the legitimacy of sources, not only for science, but in other realms as well.

The danger of perpetuating such articles, regardless of the underlying merit, is that we undermine the legitimate sources and rely on fear over reason. Consider the current political arena. There are significant movements of people who rally around leaders and parties who prey on the fear of people, where legitimate issues are taken to extremes to garner support (i.e. anti-immigration; anti-refugee; etc.). When we add to that the fact that nearly 60% of all shared links are not even read by the person sharing, people are forming “headline opinions” that lack the nuance needed to address complex and dynamic issues.

Instead, what if we did the work to find the legitimate sources and responded with a tempered vigilance. If ever there was a time to resist the impulse to use (or respond to) fear to accomplish change, it is now. Let’s not contribute the problem by sharing these extreme examples or by relying on fear to influence change. Such anti-intellectual fear-mongering is just as (if not more) dangerous to our children’s long-term health as many of the things we are trying to warn against.

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