Sunday, January 24, 2010

This is just too easy...

Last week the new Kaiser Family Foundation report on children's media use was released and it made a few headlines.

The crux of the report was something that most people who are somewhat aware of their surroundings, who are in the proximity of young kids - maybe if you go to the mall or get pissed off in a movie theater when all the cell phones are lighting up around you - pretty much expected to read: kids are using the media more than ever. They are using new media more than their elders and they are using what Fordham Professor Paul Levinson calls "new new media" (twittering, texting, blogging, YouTube, facebook) more than anyone. Frankly, Levinson's new book, "New New Media," is a much more enlightening and engaging read about these technologies and a book I highly recommend. The Kaiser study is a series of statistics based on surveys of teenagers...hey, it is what it is.

But now I just ran across something I was sort of expecting to see once the Kaiser study appeared: its paranoid misinterpretation.

The first people to point to the Kaiser report's statistics and issue portentous warnings about the decline and fall of civilization (again) are my good buddies in the Parents Television Council. The PTC is doing its usually thing in light of the study: jumping to completely unwarranted, censorious, hysterical conclusions. They can be read in their weekly warning newsletter right here.

The PTC piece is erroneously called "Children Overwhelmed by Media." This is impressive in itself because the very title of the article is already a misinterpretation of the Kaiser data. Some could call it a willful misrepresentation perhaps, an outright lie, but I really don't want to give the PTC that much credit. After my past experience with the PTC, including my debate with their 2008 "activist of the year," Crystal Madison, I've come to the conclusion that from the rank and file of the PTC and all the way to its top leadership, these people are simply too ignorant of social science research methods and data interpretation to even come up with a sophisticated lie about a simple survey like the Kaiser study. The study does not talk about whether or not children are "overwhelmed" - the loaded, negative connotation of that term is obvious - but that children are using new new media a lot more than before and they are using media in a different way than their elders, than children in the past. Why does this data mean that children are "overwhelmed?" Who has ever conclusively proven and established what is a "normal" level of media use and what is "pathological?" Thus, what standard is the PTC using to determine that the media-use percentages of the Kaiser study qualify as "overwhelming."

By the way, as a side note, one should go ahead and check out who some of the most committed activists of the PTC are by visiting their web page,, and looking at the "grassroots" link. This has information on all their regional directors, including brief biographical information. What's obvious is that none of these people have any real background in social science research whatsoever. They appear to be a lot like the busybody neighbor, Gladys Kravitz, in the old "Bewitched" sitcom; the shrill, judgmental prude who can't make it through the day without sticking her nose in other people's lives. The sole reason for the PTC's existence is for its own censorious prudes to stick their noses in other people's lives and tell them how to run their families.

As for the PTC analysis of the Kaiser study, as you read on, you find it getting more and more amusing as it goes along. The more I think about it, as a matter of fact, the more convinced I am that I can use this as a piece of teaching aid in the future when I need to illustrate the most incompetent way to misinterpret the basic meaning of statistical data. But anyway, just after summarizing the Kaiser study, the PTC goes on to its rant about the data's "Impact." Naturally, according to the PTC brain turst, this data conclusively proves that children are harmed, they are turned ignorant, violent, sexually promiscuous band of little savages. The article rails against all the "harmful" media content children are now exposed to, including pornography and violence.

Except, of course, that the Kaiser study says nothing of the sort. First, the Kaiser study does not talk at all about the specific content of the information its subjects view or listen to. The PTC assumes that the subjects are watching porn and violence. And need we bring up the old joke about what you do when you assume...? Ok, sure, let's bring it up: you make an "ass out of U and me." The PTC, though, seems never to hesitate in making asses out of themselves. Second, the Kaiser study very clearly states that CAUSALITY IS NOT TO BE INFERRED from this data. Even when the data claims that more of the children who are the heaviest media users (47 percent of the children with high-use levels) tend to have lower grades (C or lower), the authors write "the study cannot establish a cause and effect relationship between media use and grades." This conclusion, by the way, is not merely "political correctness," as the PTC founder Brent Bozell has claimed in his past articles when he cavalierly equated a statistical correlation with a causality, it is a FACT!! Maybe kids who are lazy, unmotivated slackers in school to begin with tend to waste time on their iPods and their computers and smart-phones more than the over-achieving kids. Generations of slackers have found ways to waste their time long, long before the arrival of new media. Moreover, I'm also just kind of impressed by the fact that even 53 percent of the new new media's high users DO NOT get bad grades.

But such a laughably incompetent interpretation of simple statistics is not much of a surprise when it comes to the PTC, its activist members, or any of their adjunct organizations like the Media Research Council or the Culture and Media Institute. These are the folks who put links on their web pages to studies that prove the exact opposite of what the PTC et al. is trying to argue. These are shrill, authoritarian censors who, apparently, are too busy to be bothered to read a study past its title. Perhaps they should ask their illustrious advisory board, made up of such intellectual giants as Pat Boone and has-been Disney actor Dean Jones, to do a better job of advising them about the meaning of very basic scientific data.

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