Correlations and Causation

Why Using Your Phone Less Won’t Necessarily Make You Healthier

There is evidence that resisting the pull of your device can lead to healthier living.”

This is the conclusion of the article Trying to Live in the Moment (and Not on the Phone) from citing “a recent study by researchers at Kent State University found that students who were heavy cellphone users tended to report higher anxiety levels and dissatisfaction with life than their peers who used their phones less often. 

Does this mean you should throw your mobile phone out of the window right now to live a healthier life??

The answer is no.

What we are reading in this except from the article is a classic misinterpretation of causation and correlation.

Let’s assume the findings are universally true and students who use their cellphone a lot report higher anxiety levels and dissatisfaction with life, then there are three possible explanations:

  1. As the article concludes, the use of cellphones indeed increases anxiety and dissatisfaction. In this case, use of cellphone is the cause and anxiety and dissatisfaction the effects.
  2. However, it could as well be true that cause and effect are reversed: anxiety and dissatisfaction turn people into heavy cellphone users.
  3. Finally, there is the possibility of a tertium quid, an unknown third factor that causes both. For example, people who find it more difficult to interact with others directly may prefer to use the phone, and at the same time be more anxious and dissatisfied with life.

Thus, using the phone less may not make anxiety and dissatisfaction disappear.

 

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