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A recent headline sounded the alarm about a study that found that smartphone use was related to the early onset of puberty in children. This headline was a real triple threat: fear of technology, children under threat, and sexualization of kids. BUT. The study was not a study. It was an abstract presented at a conference talking about an unpublished paper. Also, the study in question looked at rats that had been exposed to blue light for upwards of 12 hours a day. There are a lot of problems with the connections being made here and with all the fearmongering. Let us tell you about them.

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Oh, the media!

I can't even count now the number of videos we've made just to address misconceptions spread by news headlines. We even made an entire podcast episode on the role the media plays in bad research.

Look, I get it. Media organizations are dependent on clicks. For clicks, you need great headlines!

But is it too much to ask for somewhat truthful headlines? Apparently yes, according to what we've seen lately. And that's the topic of this week's Healthcare Triage.

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In mid-September, a media outlet released an article titled "Research Finds Smartphone Screen Exposure May Lead to Earlier Onset of Puberty," followed by "Exposure to blue light from use of tablets and smartphones may alter hormone levels in young children, scientists say." Cue parents everywhere losing their minds. But hold up, parents of the world! This matter-of-fact headline has far less to do with your childrens' health than you think. In fact, it is almost comical how little it has to do with the health of small humans.

The media article in question is based on a paper published in-- oh wait, I'm sorry it's not based on a published paper, it's based on an unpublished abstract being presented at a scientific meeting. Okay. So that means the full methods and data aren't yet available for scrutiny, but it's still cause for alarm, right?

The article is still covering data gathered and presented by researchers studying kids using smartphones and starting puberty early, right? Wrong again! The researchers are in fact presenting findings from a study on, wait for it, rats that were exposed to continuous blue light for periods of six to twelve hours.

Maybe I don't need to say this, but this kind of experience, i.e. that of a rat hanging around in an enclosed area staring into the blue light ether for hours, is difficult to compare to the complicated interactive experiences of screen time in human beings. This is especially true because lighting conditions are related to stress levels in rodents. In fact, alterations in lighting conditions are used to induce stress in rodent studies of stress and behavior.

Because stress affects hormone levels, this is a big consideration. In addition, the hormonal patterns of rats are like, maybe a little different from humans?

I'm not saying that this was a bad study. In fact I can't say that because it hasn't been published so I have no way of knowing much about it. I'm also not saying that the findings won't be useful. They could be a great directional sign? side? (?~2:25) for studying the effects of smartphones on humans.

What I am saying is that this headline was incredibly irresponsible. It misrepresented the research and what it meant. The article at the very end finally mentions that the study gives us, and I'm quoting, "little to no evidence about what would be found in human children." For the many people who will never reach the bottom of the article that point will be lost, another casualty in the void of scientific misinformation.

Hey did you enjoy this episode? You might enjoy this previous episode on misunderstanding the data on diet, exercise, and mortality.

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