"New Study Shows..." Thinking Critically About Research

One of our goals is to encourage parents and teachers to think critically about research. Child development research is crucial to informing best practices for parents and teachers. However, by the time a study reaches the people who would benefit from its findings, the study has usually passed through several filters: first, the researcher interprets their findings. Sometimes they also publish a press release to help control how their findings are communicated. Journalists and bloggers then translate the study to engage their audience and attract new subscribers. Every time a study passes through one of those filters, it becomes more likely that the findings will be misrepresented. The limitations of the study are often left out in favor of exciting findings. Was the study done with a small sample of families with above average incomes? Does the article imply that one thing causes another? Is there enough evidence to make a causal claim? Many news outlets do an excellent job of translating research, but that’s not always the case.

When we see a new headline about child development research, what questions should we be asking?

Was the original study peer reviewed?

Who participated in the study? How old were the children?

Are the findings “associations” or are they causal?

Answers to these questions can help us decipher findings from new studies and decide how much weight to give them. If an article was peer reviewed, then that means that it was sent to other researchers for several rounds of revisions. This process can take several years and is intended to improve the quality of research. Whether a study is applicable to any given family depends on who participated in the study. If the children were between 10 and 14, then the news article shouldn’t make claims about kids in early elementary school. Words like “association”, “link”, or “relationship” are cues that the study wasn’t causal. If a headline reads “New Study Confirms that Screen Time Is Hurting Children’s Performance in School”, then that implies that screen time impacted children’s academic performance - a causal claim. If that article then goes on to describe a study that found an association between screen time and academic performance, then that headline is misleading. There could be other explanations for their findings. How are they defining “performance in school”? Results could vary based on whether they used standardized test scores or grades.

Our goal is that Scientific Mommy will serve as a source of research that parents and teachers can rely on to report research without sensationalizing or exaggerating findings. If you ever come across a news article about child development and are skeptical, we would love to hear your thoughts.

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