Shockingly bad science journalism in the Guardian

Content note: this post discusses mental illness, mentions self harm, suicide and sexual violence

It’s been a while since I’ve considered the Guardian a decent source of news, but sometimes things get egregious. Yesterday, an article entitled “Mental illness soars among young women in England – survey” was put out, and their reporting… wasn’t very good.

A study was released finding that young women aged 16-24 are at very high risk for mental illness, with more than a quarter of the group experiencing a condition, and almost 20% screening positive for PTSD symptoms. This has all risen since 2007: not just for young women, but across genders and age groups. What, according to the Guardian’s heavy focus of the article, is to blame?

Social media, apparently.

The Guardian’s reporting focuses heavily on how social media is to blame, selectively quoting researchers mentioning social media to the extent that I would love to see what questions they were asked (my personal favourite: “There are some studies that have found those who spend time on the internet or using social media are more likely to [experience] depression, but correlation doesn’t imply causality.”)

Then there’s the case study telling her story of her experience with PTSD and triggers. She talks a lot about film and TV, and the stress of university, and yet somehow her case study is titled “Social media makes it harder to tune out things that are traumatic”. She mentions it briefly in the last paragraph–while still mostly focusing on film and TV!

Now, the reason the Guardian’s twisting of this survey for their own ends is so particularly problematic is the importance of the research. You can download the whole report here, or read a summary here.

It’s quite a well-done survey, a very robust look at mental illness in England, and laying groups who are most at risk. You know me, and how quibbly I can get about published research. This one is actually good. However, it’s worth noting something they didn’t measure in the survey: social media use. This means, of course, it’s absolutely impossible to draw conclusions from the data about social media and mental illness from this research. The survey authors mention that their young cohort is the first to come of age in the social media age, which is true to a certain extent, although I am in an older cohort and came of age in a world where I constantly chatted to friends online, whether I knew them in the meatspace or not. Again, it would be nice if they’d consistently measured online behaviour across studies.

I’ll quote one of the other key research findings here, because again it’s crucial and if you read the Guardian you’d never know about them.

Most mental disorders were more common in people living alone, in poor physical health, and not employed. Claimants of Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), a benefit aimed at those unable to work due to poor health or disability, experienced particularly high rates of all the disorders assessed.

So. Let’s speculate with the results then. What else happened between 2007 and 2014 that might have had a negative impact on people, especially those who are on disability benefits.

I’ll give you a clue. It happened quite soon after 2007, and the young cohort would have come of age into this, as well as more people using Facebook.

One more clue: it rhymes with wobal winancial wisis wand wausterity.

These are young people who have grown into a world with no prospects, with a hugely gendered impact. Of course, once again, it’s just speculation, but it’s slightly more robust speculation than the Guardian’s because they measured benefit receipt and employment status.

As women, a lot of us would have chorused “no shit, Sherlock” upon seeing the results, and seeing how gendered the results are. We deal with more, and it’s even worse if we’re poor.

The Guardian has a bit of a hateboner for social media, and, unfortunately, this has completely blurred its analysis and reporting of what is an important survey that actually found some interesting trends over time, as well as a bleak snapshot of the current realities.

5 responses to “Shockingly bad science journalism in the Guardian

  • korhomme

    Alas, Science and the Guardian are incompatible. Most journos are ‘Arts’ graduates (and depressingly many from Oxbridge) so ‘Science’ is terra incognito for them.

  • summerskye14

    No understands until they see a loved one go through this ….or go through it them selves. Be kind

  • summerskye14

    How do we stop this madness ? Take away TV phones fb….help all us moms please drop a comment on this or my page…help us give tips on how to bot let our children fall into this. Or help them get out of it

    • stavvers

      Nope. The key is to fucking FIGHT for their futures. Don’t fight the things that keep them in contact with their support networks, fight the material conditions which give them no hope.

      • summerskye14

        That’s awesome ! Such good advice! Keep it coming help all moms and dads adapt to the surrounding!!! It is what it is and it’s not going to change ….so let’s make the best of it!

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