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On not resolving an issue with statistics

By Ciara Green, on 10 September 2014

By Ciara Green and Daniel Miller

Image by Giselle, Creative Commons

Image by Giselle, Creative Commons

For 18 months, we have worked together on the ethnography of The Glades. As part of this, we intend to write a joint paper focusing on the research we did within four local secondary schools on sixth formers aged 16-18. This will be concerned with the precise impact of new social media on relationships between school pupils, rather than schooling itself. It particular, we will examine relationships that have been discussed in terms of ‘cyber bullying.’ Much of this is dictated by policy concerns and as a result, tends to classify pupils, for example, into victims and bullies. By contrast, we want to situate such issues within the more general and now ubiquitous use of social media amongst this population, without diminishing our concern with the impact of such behaviour, including the potential for suicide. Our method will be to respect the way the pupils themselves discuss these issues, which suggests a much more ubiquitous culture of quarrelling such as the occurrence of what the school pupils refer to as ‘Twitter Beef’ within which many people play varying roles at different times. Our main contribution will be to try and isolate changes which seems unequivocally related to the specifics of social media, such as the use of ‘indirects’, the expansion of communication from within school to potentially 24 hour access, and the idea that people are more inclined to problematic communication when ‘hiding behind a screen’.

We cannot, however, ignore a huge popular debate on whether social media makes the lives of these pupils in some ways better or worse. In particular, there are more sensationalist newspaper articles that imply a massive increase in cyber bullying with major consequences for pupils. In response to this we found we had different perspectives. Ciara is of the generation that experienced this activity and was subsequently more inclined to see social media as exacerbating problems and wants to ensure we don’t detract from this experience of harm. Danny, considering the ubiquity of such issues in periods prior to social media, was more conservative. We both, of course, recognise that the term cause is too simplistic and social media is part of much wider contexts. We will see changes that some regard as negative such as indirects and ubiquity and also ones the pupils regard as positive such as increased access to social support.

Nevertheless, we felt as good scholars we should supplement our interpretation of our pupil interviews with any other data that might be relevant. It seemed worth knowing, for example, whether the period of social media adoption coincided with any change in incidence in behaviour such as teenage suicide, eating disorders, cutting and self-harm. After spending a considerable amount of time on this issue and consulting with a statistician we soon found that good intentions were not enough. We find the statistical data is inconsistent and sometimes related to factors such as reporting self-harm which may not be the same as incidence. The academic papers based on such data are themselves constantly divided in the negative and positive gloss they put on such figures. Meanwhile, accounts in mainstream media tend to use such data to make eye-catching claims, such that the more ‘objective’ the data, the less objectively it seems to be used.

In turn, we have our own ambivalence about our qualitative data. Danny would see teachers’ suggestions that things were just as bad before social media as confirmation of his position, while Ciara sees it as confirmation that teachers are less close to the actual experience of pupils than they think. So where does that leave us? In practice, it leads us back to our starting point. What we can do is write clearly about which specific factors the pupils themselves believe has exacerbated negative consequences. We can also provide an important corrective to the policy directed classifications by using the pupils’ descriptions to give greater nuance that is usually found in terms such as ‘cyber bullying’. We can hope that precisely because we have differing perspectives we can, in combination, provide a fair reading of our extensive findings. Our discussions were not in fact enlightened by this wider enquiry. But, after all, even if the statistics had been clear as to trends, we would still have had plenty to debate around any assumption as to whether the material from our study accounts for any statistical correlation as opposed to many other possible factors. But then no one said academic writing is easy.

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