Teen texting study an example of a researcher misleading the media

A new study connects the texting habits of teenagers with drug use and other risky behavior. Contrary to media reports, the study did not show texting to cause the teens’ risk-taking.

Teenagers who send more than 120 text messages a day are more likely than their peers to engage in a variety of risky behaviors, including sexual activity, smoking, drinking, and drug use. That much we can agree on. It was the key finding of a Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine study presented this week.

Media coverage was predictably breathless:

But there is a big problem with each of the stories linked above. As compelling as these stories are, texting did not cause poor health or risky behaviors in this study. More precisely, the study did not show a cause-effect relationship. It found correlations — associations between certain behaviors that tend to rise and fall together. It did not say what causes what.

If we know that one behavior (texting, in this case) is more common among people who also do another behavior (let’s use drinking), then we can say the two behaviors are correlated. But that leaves at least three very different possibilities when it comes to cause and effect:

  1. Texting causes drinking.
  2. Drinking causes texting.
  3. Some other thing (lack of parental supervision, maybe?) causes both drinking and texting.

A correlational study (like this one) does not tell us which of those three possibilities is most likely (the third strikes me as by far the most plausible). And reporters understand that conclusions about correlation are not especially enticing news stories. “This one thing is related to this other thing, but we do not really know what causes either one of them” makes for a lousy article.

So reporters sometimes go beyond what a study actually shows, and pull a cause-effect relationship out of thin air. In essence, they pick their favorite out of the three possibilities listed above, and run with it. They do this in spite of a complete lack of data supporting their conclusion over the other cause-effect possibilities.

That seems to be what happened here. What is unusual in this case is the degree to which the study’s lead author actively promoted the made-up conclusion.

Even though the press release about the teen-texting study largely uses the right terms in describing the results (labeling behaviors as being “associated with” each other), Scott Frank, the lead author of the study, was remarkably cavalier in determining a cause-effect relationship his study did not demonstrate. He is quoted in that same press release as saying

“When left unchecked, texting and other widely popular methods of staying connected can have dangerous health effects on teenagers.”

The medical school where the study was conducted is also encouraging this unsupported conclusion. The link to this study from the Case Western School of Medicine home page currently reads “Hyper-texting and Hyper-Networking Pose New Health Risks for Teens.”

Frank’s promotion of a conclusion his own data does not support prompted an unusually direct rebuke from John Grohol, the CEO of PsychCentral, whose own site had reported on the study earlier. Grohol wrote that Frank’s conclusions about texting having negative health effects are (emphasis Grohol’s)

all pure crap. You could just as easily write the following headlines:

Teens Who Smoke, Drink Also Text a Lot
Outgoing Teens Like to Do Things Outgoing Teens Like to Do
Teens Who Enjoy Sex Like to Text Too!

Scott Frank, MD, MS should be ashamed of himself.

I’m with Grohol on this. For Frank to say that texting can have negative health effects is, as Grohol put it, “sloppy at best, and unethical at worst.” Frank is promoting a conclusion his study simply does not support. And some media outlets appear to be all too happy to run a story confirming parents’ worst fears about teenagers and technology, even when the story and the data do not match.


In deference to my journalist friends, it must be noted that the examples of poor media coverage above are far outweighed, in both quantity and quality, by the many stories covering this study that ignored Frank’s quotes and reported his results accurately. Search “teenagers texting drinking” on Google’s news site and you will find far more headlines using phrases like “linked to” or “associated with” than you will find “causes.” Kudos to those writers (of both the stories and the headlines, since they are often not the same person) who understand the difference.