BJPsych Kaleidoscope March 2019

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It's hard to go more than a day or two without some moral panic about children, screen-time, mental health, and the pending end of civilisation.

Much nonsense abounds, but it's reasonable to have some concerns; certainly children communicate in a way unimaginable to those of us who grew up having their parents pick up the phone mid-conversation telling us to get off the line so they could make a call. With the multitude of connections, from Twitter through Facebook to Snapchat, are younger people really less isolated than we were? Kaleidoscope looks at a longitudinal study that followed up over 2,000 young British people, who were born in 1994/5, to the present day. 23-31% reported feeling lonely, 5-7% feeling this often; a figure that is actually higher than other age groups. It was equally spread across socioeconomic backgrounds and genders, and associated with poorer social and mental health outcomes. Interestingly, loneliness was highest in those using social media the most; having 'followers' isn't the same as having friends. It's easy to imagine young people are all living fun-filled highly connected social lives; it simply isn't true for very many of them.

There's an evolutionary argument that one of the drivers for the growth in human brainpower is women's preference for intelligent men.

Now, I sense you're already shouting some choice phrases at the screen, but let me finish (and of course remind you that as ever, I just report the science). The *scientific* argument is that across aeons past, choosing a smart male was a helpful way for females with offspring to ensure access to environmental resources. However, for all number of reasons - many of which are not fit to discuss in an email sent from The President's Own Account - it's a tricky thing to test human romantic interactions in the lab. Kaleidoscope reports on a fascinating study in budgies that gets around this. The research team placed two male budgies behind a glass screen, and watched a female budgie's behaviour towards them; over time they learned which one she preferred and seemed more attracted to. Then, they took away the males, and trained the one she wasn't attracted to how to obtain food from a sneaky trap. Once he had mastered this skill, they put the two males back in front of the female (still behind glass), now with the food trap in the room. The female now observed her less fancied male looking rather clever by getting food out, while the handsome budgie couldn't figure it out and wasn't getting any food. Over time, the female budgie became less attracted in the erstwhile lothario, and shifted her attention and affections to Mr Smart - who's a pretty boy, then? Does it translate to humans? I have no opinion at all on the matter, and will let you argue that out with work colleagues; to spice it up, I recommend you also introduce the category of “ex-partners” into the conversation…

Finally, we're all aware that attitudes shift over time; an evening spent watching 1970s TV will demonstrate that to you, and likely shock you*.

More recently there was a newspaper article noting how millennials find re-runs of the TV show “Friends” culturally problematic (I'd have gone for “impossibly crass”, but I take their point). A new study looked at attitude changes in Americans from 2006 to 2016, importantly looking at both explicit attitudes (what people say) and implicit attitudes (how they act); the areas looked at were sexual orientation, race, skin tone, age, disability, and body weight. By 2016, all explicit attitudes had shown changes “towards neutrality”; in other words people described less hostility towards others based on their sexual orientation, ethnicity and so forth. However, the implicit data showed that people actually only believed what they said for sexual orientation, race, and skin tone. When it came to implicit attitudes to age and disability, there were no real changes from 2006, and with regards to weight, people's attitudes had worsened. This resonates with me, and I think today we are more preoccupied and judgemental about others' (and our own) physical appearance in a way we never were previously (in fact, many wouldn't even see it as a bias or problem to 'fat shame' others). So, progress in many areas, no change in others, and a worsening in one category. You might note that the test ended in 2016, just before Brexit and Trump: I think we need to re-test.

*Except for The Sweeney, which still rocks.

Quiz

(All questions true or false; full answers – and source material - will be in March’s Kaleidoscope column in the BJPsych)

  1. Data comparing attitudes held by US adults showed that between 2006 and 2016 explicit negative opinions based on others’ ethnicity and sexuality decreased, but implicit values appeared to remain the same.
  2. A large UK longitudinal study found that loneliness in young people was associated with greater rates of use of social media.
  3. A meta-analysis of testosterone treatment for refractory depression in men confirmed overall efficacy, an effect independent of baseline levels of the hormone.

Answers

  1. False, but explicit and implicit attitudes became less hostile for ethnicity and sexuality, though this was not true for all other domains.
  2. True, though causality was not tested.
  3. True.
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