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From Hype to Reality: Separating Fact from Fiction in Media Coverage of ChatGPT and Higher Education

Written by Dr Sam Illingworth, Associate Professor in the Department for Learning and Teaching Enhancement at Edinburgh Napier University.

In recent weeks, there has been a lot of media attention around ChatGPT, a large language model created by OpenAI (an artificial intelligence company), and its potential applications in higher education. ChatGPT is a chatbot which can understand and generate text. It can be used to write news summaries, product descriptions, stories, essays, or emails, for example. However, the way in which this has been discussed and portrayed in the media has varied widely, ranging from accurate and informative to sensationalistic and misleading.

One common theme in media coverage of ChatGPT and higher education is the potential for the model to revolutionize the way we learn and teach. Some articles suggest that ChatGPT could replace traditional lectures and textbooks with personalised, interactive learning experiences that adapt to each student’s individual needs and interests. While there is certainly potential for ChatGPT to be used in this way, it is important to note that the technology is still in its early stages and there are many challenges that must be overcome before it can be widely adopted in higher education.

Another common theme in media coverage of ChatGPT and higher education is the potential for the model to perpetuate existing biases and inequalities in education. As others and I have warned, ChatGPT, like any technology, is only as unbiased as the data it is trained on, and that if the data contains biases or inequalities, these will be reflected in the model’s outputs. This is an important consideration and underscores the need for careful attention to be paid to the data used to train ChatGPT and other such tools in higher education and beyond.

However, not all media coverage of ChatGPT and higher education is accurate or informative. Some articles focus on sensationalistic headlines or clickbait, rather than providing a balanced and nuanced view of the research. For example, some articles have suggested that ChatGPT could eventually replace human teachers entirely, leading to mass unemployment in the education sector. While it is true that ChatGPT has the potential to automate some aspects of teaching and learning, it is unlikely to completely replace human teachers in the foreseeable future.

Similarly, some articles have suggested that ChatGPT could be used to cheat on exams or assignments, allowing students to pass without learning the material. While it is possible that some students may try to use ChatGPT in this way, it is important to note that using AI models to cheat would likely be detected by plagiarism detection software or human instructors. Likewise, in many instances some of these headlines are assuming that all students will use the technology to cheat, rather than either trusting our students or actually asking them about how they might use it to enhance their studies.

To sum up, the media portrayal of ChatGPT and higher education can differ greatly, ranging from factual and educational to exaggerated and deceptive. While there is certainly potential for ChatGPT to be used in innovative and beneficial ways in higher education, it is important to approach the technology with a critical eye and to carefully consider its potential limitations and drawbacks. By doing so, we can ensure that ChatGPT and other AI models are used to enhance, rather than replace, human teaching and learning in higher education.

You can find out more about Sam’s work and research by visiting his website and connect with him on Twitter @samillingworth or email

Fighting fire with fire: Using genetically reprogrammed bacteria to treat respiratory infections.

Written by Dr. William Johnston, Postdoctoral researcher, Glasgow Caledonian University and Dr. Mark Thomas Shaw Williams, Lecturer in Cell and Molecular Biology, Glasgow Caledonian University.

Respiratory tract infections are infections of parts of the body involved in breathing, such as the sinuses, throat, airways, or lungs. Some examples are the common cold, tonsillitis, and laryngitis.

Respiratory tract infections are of growing concern due to rising death rates and limited treatment options. This occurs as many bacteria responsible for these infections are resistant to current antibiotics, and a large proportion of cases are caused by biofilms.

Biofilms arise when bacteria clump together in a ‘slime-like’ substance making them difficult to be targeted by antibiotics. This is especially common in patients on ventilation in intensive care units (ICU).

One bacteria like this which makes biofilms is P. aeruginosa, related to pneumonia and severe infections in cystic fibrosis. Previous attempts to treat P. aeruginosa biofilms using antibiotics have been largely unsuccessful, leaving few treatment options available for patients who already have a weakened immune system.

A recent research study carried out by Mazzolini and colleagues focussed on using another bacteria called M. pneumoniae to fight P. aeruginosa biofilms. The researchers selected M. pneumoniae because it is responsive to antibiotics and easy to genetically modify.

What did the research find?

In their research published in Nature Biotechnology, the authors successfully reprogram M. pneumoniae giving it the ability to breakdown and kill P. aeruginosa biofilms without M. pneumoniae causing infection itself. This was completed through two steps;

Step 1: They removed genes in M. pneumoniae capable of causing disease, creating a weakened strain suitable for use.

Step 2: They added new genes to this M. pneumoniae strain making it capable of dissolving P. aeruginosa biofilms and then killing it once the biofilm was broken down.

How was this research covered in the media?

This research was featured in an article from The Guardian titled “GM bacteria could combat antibiotic resistance, study suggests”. The article provides a good summary of the research and is well explained with input from the senior author of the study. However, the article headline is slightly misleading because the reprogrammed M. pneumoniae cannot make bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics responsive to them again. The reprogrammed M. pneumoniae provides an alternative treatment option for P. aeruginosa biofilms, but does not make existing antibiotic resistant bacteria any more responsive to antibiotics.  

What will happen with this research in the future?

Taken together, this research provides firm evidence that using a genetically reprogrammed bacteria to treat P. aeruginosa biofilms may be an effective option for respiratory tract infections. However, it is worth stating that this research was performed largely in mice, and whilst the data seem promising, a major challenge will be the transition into human infections, which can take more than ten years to get from discovery to market.

Breakfast like a king: Can a big breakfast help reduce weight?

Written by Sophie Hoetzel, public engagement masters student, University of Edinburgh and Dr Esther Papies, School of Psychology and Neuroscience, University of Glasgow.

New diet plans and information about how to lose weight seem to appear weekly. However, there is no ‘one size fits all’ advice. Nutrition is complex; numerous factors like our genes, physiology, psychology, and lifestyle affect our food habits and how food affects our health. Nevertheless, or potentially because of this, there seems to be a desperate need for an easy solution. The media frequently reports about new pieces of nutritional research, and the different ways media outlets write about them can be confusing and contradicting.

A study recently published by Leonie Ruddick-Collins and colleagues in Cell Metabolism looked at the impact of eating times on weight loss in otherwise healthy obese people. More specifically, the aim was to see if consuming most calories (45%) for breakfast would lead to a greater weight loss compared to eating most calories at dinner (morning-loaded vs evening-loaded). They found that the timing did not affect the participants’ metabolism or the number of calories burned throughout the day. No significant weight loss difference was evident between the big breakfast group and big dinner group. However, the timing did affect certain hormones, including the ‘hunger hormone’ ghrelin. The big breakfast group had lower ghrelin levels and felt lower appetite (i.e. less hungry) during the day compared to the big dinner group. As participants only ate the food provided by the researchers, neither of the groups snacked, whilst in the ‘real world’, more appetite could have led to more snacking. 

How did the media cover this research?

The Daily Mail titled their article: ‘Why eating ‘breakfast like a king’ might not help you lose weight: Age-old diet advice to consume bulk of calories in morning does not help you burn more calories, study finds’. It suggests the time of calorie consumption is not linked to weight loss in anyway, whilst the title of an article by The Sun claims the opposite: ‘GO LARGE Best time to eat the biggest meal of the day when trying to lose weight revealed by health experts’. Interestingly, both articles explained the original study and summarised its findings well. However, the ‘health experts’ The Sun referred to in their title were not the study’s researchers, but rather Dr. Mosley, a former doctor and now TV presenter. He expressed his surprise at the result as he compared it to the previous Tel Aviv University study with different results. The study was carried out in a less controlled setting with participants with raised blood sugar levels as opposed to healthy individuals. Their participants lost more weight after eating big breakfasts. However, a less controlled setting meant participants could snack during the day. Other differences included the original study being significantly shorter, but it assessed energy expenditure (calories burned) more accurately. So, differences in the results are not surprising. Nevertheless, both studies showed a decrease in appetite after a big breakfast, which can potentially help weight loss.

Finally, the BBC found a straight-forward and clear way to summarise a key finding of the study: ‘Bigger breakfasts better for controlling appetite, study suggests’. Taken together, research suggests that people could potentially lose weight by eating big breakfasts due to behavioural changes as a result of reduced appetite (e.g. less snacking). However, the new study found no association between eating times and calories burned. It is important to remember that nutrition is complex; everybody is different, and what works best for one person does not necessarily work for another. 

Reporting on Mental Health and Long COVID— What’s the Relationship?

Written by Shivane Chawla, public engagement masters student, University of Edinburgh and Dr Joanne Ingram, Senior lecturer, University of West Scotland.

The COVID-19 pandemic has widened health inequalities including those in mental health. For example, people with poor mental health tend to have physical health problems like high blood pressure, asthma, cancer, epilepsy or asthma. New research shows that people with poorer mental health are more likely to develop long COVID, adding to their already too large number of physical conditions.

What did the research find?

A recent Harvard research study, consisting mostly of women participants, looked to see if psychological distress (depression, anxiety, loneliness, stress, or worry) before a COVID infection was associated with a risk of having COVID symptoms for more than 4 weeks. This extended timeframe is referred to as “Long COVID”, where several common symptoms include extreme fatigue, shortness of breath and a loss of smell. The study followed 3193 people over a one-year period. The participants were given several self-assessment surveys, one on their baseline level of distress before contracting COVID and then at monthly and quarterly timepoints to assess the rates of COVID infection and on-going symptoms. They found that previous psychological distress, experienced before COVID infection, but during the pandemic (April to September 2020), was associated with increased risk of long COVID conditions.

How was this study covered in the media?

 The Guardian article title “Study Finds Link Between Poor mental health and long COVID” title conveys the research in a way that could be misleading. Firstly, many readers would also think the link between mental health and long COVID would go the other way; that long COVID leads to mental health problems. So, those who only read the headline might have completely misunderstood the findings. Secondly, using the term “mental health” suggests that clinical conditions have been measured i.e. does a person have a diagnosis of depression or not?  Whereas, people only answered basic distress questionnaire. The sub-title clarifies this point well, ‘High levels of distress before coronavirus infection raises risk of long COVID, say Harvard researchers.’

Later in the article, clearer distinction is made between what has been found versus potential interpretations. For example, the article’s authors explicitly note that “The findings do not mean that mental health issues cause long COVID: more than 40% of those who developed long COVID in the study had no signs of distress before infection.” It is that poor mental health in the early stages of the pandemic puts a person at higher risk for developing long COVID. Chronic stress can weaken the immune system and make a person vulnerable to long COVID. The Guardian places the study in the wider context by explaining this point well by noting that stress has been linked to a greater susceptibility to common colds and other respiratory tract infections.

How much more global warming can we take? Rising temperatures are bringing us close to multiple climate tipping points

Written by Rebecca Sharland, Science Communication and Public Engagement Masters student at the University of Edinburgh and Dr Michael Byrne, leader of the Climate Dynamics Lab at the University of St Andrews.

COP27 is taking place this week in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. High on the agenda will be issues surrounding the Paris Agreement and discussions on how nations can work together to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5°C – a significant change given that the Earth has already warmed by 1.1°C and could reach 1.5°C as soon as the 2030s.

What did the study show and what are climate tipping points?

Climate tipping points occur when changes in large parts of the climate system become self-perpetuating beyond a warming threshold and result in irreversible alterations to the Earth system, for example collapsing ice sheets causing sea level rise.

A recent study in Science has re-evaluated climate tipping points (see some examples in the table below) and the global warming thresholds at which they are likely to be triggered. Some of tipping points assessed were global, affecting the overall operation of the Earth system (e.g., major ice sheet collapses or the Amazon rainforest turning to desert); while others were more regional affecting human welfare or unique features of the Earth system (e.g., coral bleaching in the Great Barrier Reef).

Natural Earth Feature Tipping point outcome
Greenland Ice SheetCollapse
West Antarctic Ice SheetCollapse
Labrador-Irminger Seas/SPG Convection Collapse
East Antarctic Subglacial BasinsCollapse
Amazon RainforestDieback (i.e. turn to desert)
Boreal PermafrostCollapse
Atlantic M.O. CirculationCollapse
Arctic Winter Sea IceCollapse
East Antarctic Ice SheetCollapse
Low-latitude Coral ReefsDie off
Boreal PermafrostAbrupt thaw
Barents Sea IceAbrupt loss
Mountain GlaciersLoss
Sahel and W. African MonsoonGreening
Boreal ForestSouthern dieback
Boreal ForestNorthern expansion

As we approach the minimum temperatures at which these tipping points may occur, the question arises about the accuracy of the estimated thresholds (based on climate modelling) and whether some of these have already been surpassed.

The paper states that we must stay on track with the Paris agreement, and push to keep global warming below the 1.5°C target as the threat of activating tipping points increases for every fraction of a degree of warming. They warn that the Earth may already have passed beyond a safe state with our current 1.1 degree celsius of warming above pre-industrial levels.

What did the media report?

The Guardian published an article titled “World on brink of five ‘disastrous’ climate tipping points, study finds” based on the above study.

Initially, the article takes a very alarmist approach. The word ‘disastrous’ is not used in the research study itself and the temperatures at which the final six tipping points could be triggered are exaggerated (the article states that they will occur anywhere above 2°C, however many of the thresholds are around 4°C with some are as high as 7.5°C).

However, the article contains interviews with members of the research team who highlight both the dangers of triggering these tipping points and their hope for prevention. Several researchers also mention uncertainty around the global warming thresholds at which these tipping points will be triggered and the urgent need for further investigation.

Disappointingly, the key message from the original research study, that we must strive to meet the terms of the Paris Agreement, is somewhat lost in this news article. It is only mentioned briefly as a quote from an interview and is not highlighted by the journalist.

What next?

It is important to raise awareness of the dangers posed by global warming; The Guardian article does this well, emphasising how disastrous passing these global tipping points would be. Nevertheless, it is also necessary to highlight the preventable nature of these changes, the amount of further research required and the substantial uncertainty involved in trying to predict if and when these tipping points will be crossed. We are at a very critical point with global warming where we must aim to minimise increases in the Earth’s temperature; if and how we are going to do this will be key questions during COP27 discussions this month.  

ADHD misrepresentation: harmful and damaging

Written by Dr Sinead Rhodes (Senior Research Fellow) and Ailbhe McKinney (PhD researcher), University of Edinburgh

The last post I wrote about the representation of ADHD in the media highlighted clear improvements with coverage of this neurodivergent condition over the last couple of decades. It is then extremely disappointing to see a new post in the media that mocks the condition. The article is so bad that I am really hoping it is withdrawn and the media source learns a stern lesson from responses like this as I am assuming people with ADHD will be highly offended by it.

We have written a lot on Research the Headlines about sensationalist or misleading headlines but this one definitely tops all of them – ‘I may not be a doctor….but I’m almost certain you have ADHD: Welcome to the new stage of your life, where everyone seems to have the same neurological condition’.   Even more concerning is that the headline matches the full article. We often post about ‘Don’t stop at the headline’ as the article is usually informative with the headline acting as click bait. In this case though, the ridicule continues throughout the article. This is very disheartening to see this for what is a clinically diagnosed condition that can cause those affected significant difficulties in everyday life.

Ironically, I clicked on this post as I was waiting on some final information to press submit on a grant application I have been writing to fund a study to ensure more appropriate assessment of mental health in neurodivergent young people. To read an article that refers to ‘the ever increasing explosion in adult ADHD diagnoses’ at a time when we know that ADHD is still massively under-diagnosed is frankly alarming.  ADHD is under – not over- diagnosed (at least in the UK where this article was published). Many of those who have not been diagnosed, for whatever reason, typically have significant difficulties in how they function. This often extends to their mental health. Also, the article claims receiving a ADHD diagnosis can be achieved with “stunning ease” yet, in Scotland (and the UK), waiting lists for neurodevelopment condition assessment are lengthy, typically 18 months upwards with some children waiting up to 3 years (Crane et al., 2018), see for example NHS Tayside but has been up to seven years for adults.

Children and adults who are neurodivergent, including those with ADHD, have a much higher risk of mental health difficulties than their peers. They also show these difficulties much earlier in life – often in childhood. Mocking the usefulness of a diagnosis and the process is simply appalling.  We know that psychoeducation – understanding a condition you may have – is extremely important for positive outcomes. This is indeed recognised in the NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) guidelines (NICE, 2018) where understanding ADHD is recommended within the treatment plan for those with ADHD.         

It is difficult to read this article and not get the impression that the author thinks this will come across as some kind of banter – the whole piece is written as if it was to be interpreted as a joke. They even refer to the outcome of their assessment as ‘plus this way I get drugs!’ We know that for many young people and adults with ADHD stimulant medication can be a lifeline – it can facilitate them to stop and think and plan and remember what they need to do in any given situation. Coupled with appropriate supports within their environment – whether they are a child at home or school or an adult in employment – it can be an extremely important component of navigating their day in what many with ADHD perceive as a ‘neurotypical world’.

I would worry about someone who recently got an ADHD diagnosis coming across this article which belittles them. They may be at a point in their life where finally things are starting to make sense and may even be building the courage to tell friends, family, and co-workers. This article will then stop them in their tracks to do so and make them feel like a joke. They might think if I tell people I have ADHD they’ll just think I am a silly “ultra-online zillennial” looking for an excuse to not to work. After beginning to realise why their life has been harder than everyone else’s, this article will invalidate the years of suffering they have endured, because, as the article says, it is ‘so commonplace’.

The most concerning part of the article was the reference to women undergoing ADHD assessment. The article refers to ‘the reassessment of who’s been chronically overlooked (read: women)’ in the context of describing the new world they think we live in of an ‘explosion of adult diagnoses’. My work has involved considerable engagement with girls and women with suspected ADHD –the non-diagnosis due to having been on a long waiting list, hiding their ADHD (called ‘masking’ or ‘camouflaging’), being overshadowed by depression, anxiety, or eating disorders or delays caused by looking a little different to males with ADHD in their behaviours. Not having a diagnosis – being misunderstood and the mental health consequences that often come with that – just because you are a woman is not a laughing matter. The consequences of not having a diagnosis when you are experiencing those difficulties can be devastating.  Ailbhe McKinney, who is a PhD researcher working with me, has recently completed extensive work with female adolescents and adults with neurodivergent conditions about their priorities for research and the overwhelming response relates to wanting research to focus on masking and fitting in as these are thought to have a huge impact on mental health outcomes. Undermining the importance of diagnosis for women alongside a narrative about how easy it is to get a diagnosis is harmful and damaging to yes what quite frankly are a chronically overlooked group.       

ADHD in the news: media reporting in 2022

The Neurodevelopmental condition Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) has historically received negative attention in the media in comparison to similar conditions such as Autism, Dyspraxia or Dyslexia. What is the current state of play?

It is clear there are improvements in reporting in comparison to common media reporting from the time I first started carrying out research in this area almost 25 years ago.  Most media outlets are now reporting accurate information that helps the public understand the condition and its treatment. It has been really good to see articles reference the NHS and encouraging readers to find out more about ADHD directly from NHS websites such as this recent article about a ‘Love Island’ contestant who has a diagnosis of ADHD.  

There are also very positive reports in the media about ADHD framed around the celebration of neurodiversity. An example is a recent article in the Daily Mail about Grant Denyer’s wife Chezzi and the sense of empowerment her diagnosis of ADHD gave her.    

It has been really positive to see posts on ADHD in the media recently that highlight the impact of current world issues for those with ADHD. For example, a recent article in the Guardian wrote about the findings of a study commissioned by the digital bank Monzo on the topic of ADHD and finance management. The article highlighted the particular challenges adults with ADHD are having in the context of the cost of living crisis.  Importantly the article featured life experiences of 3 adults with ADHD who spoke about things that made finance management easier for them. This included digital visual reminders used by their banks and banking tools that gave them control and transparency.   

There is still a way to go. Media articles still use wording that those with neurodivergent conditions such as ADHD and autism would find disempowering such as reference to ‘suffers from’ ADHD (here and here). Often these references are contained not just in the body of the article but also within the headline.   The reference to ‘suffering’ is really at odds with the key messages of these articles which highlight the importance of understanding and embracing the condition.

Negative and/or misleading reporting about common medications used to treat ADHD is still unfortunately evident in the media. Historically there has been concerns by researchers that their explanations of findings around the effects of ADHD medication were often only partially represented, meaning that some of the facts about medication effects were distorted.

In a recent article, one media outlet reported about a celebrity who had been diagnosed with ADHD and had started medication and who had posted on social media that they were ‘feeling very buzzy’. The headline they used ‘Abbie Chatfield reveals the effects of her ADHD medication as she begins treatment almost three months after being diagnosed: Feeling very buzzy’ would seem to suggest that the impact of the medication on her was potentially negative. The importance of following our top tip of ‘Don’t Stop at the Headline’ is really highlighted with this article because as you read the article it is revealed that Abbie kept updating on social media and later reported feeling more focused and able to follow conversations better. 

If you want to find out more about ADHD the NHS has excellent summary information on their website. Organisations like the ADHD Foundation and ADDISS also have useful information and importantly links to useful resources. 

Reporting evidence in an accurate way – the effects of COVID-19 on the brain

Written by Marco Bonfanti, PhD researcher at University of Strathclyde and Dr Margaret Rose Cunningham, Senior Lecturer at University of Strathclyde

Over the past two years the world has witnessed the historical event of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. We have got to know the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV 2), first reported in December 2019. The major symptoms are fever, cough, headache, fatigue breathing difficulties, loss of smell and taste, although a third of people infected do not develop any symptoms. The virus spreads when people breath in contaminated air, as the virus is found in small droplets aerosols. After being inhaled, SARS-CoV 2 infects the body through the respiratory tract. The transmission is mostly dependent on a viral spike protein, which interacts with a receptor found in lung cells.

The virus not only affects the respiratory system, but over time more research has highlighted side effects in other areas of the body, such as the cardiovascular system, the gastrointestinal tract, and the nervous system. The action of the virus in the latter context is clear when looking at symptoms. Loss of taste and smell are very common and often arise before the respiratory problems. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, extensive research investigated how the virus can damage the brain. There are two main theories, one where the effect occurs directly from the infection, and another where the virus stimulates the immune system to cause inflammation in the brain. Inflammation is the body response to harmful stimuli, which results in heat, pain, redness, swelling and loss of function.

The UK Biobank is a biomedical database, containing health information from half a million UK participants. In a recent study, Dr Douaud and colleagues at the University of Oxford, used the data to compare brain scans of patients before and after contracting COVID-19. This study was the largest investigation on the effects of COVID on the human brain to date, as it included 785 patients (401 infected – 384 controls). A limitation of this study was however the restricted age range of the participants pool, which was between 51 and 81 years old. Moreover, using a UK database led to the ethnicity of the participants being almost entirely white people. The paper reports that even in mild cases of covid, infected patients took a longer time to complete numeric and alphanumeric cognitive tasks. When looking at what regions of the brain were impacted by the infection, brain scans revealed a modest loss of grey matter thickness in regions mainly associated with smell. 

This study was commented on in an article in The Guardian by the scientist Eric Topol, an expert that stood for evidence-based solutions to treat COVID-19. During the past years we have witnessed how easy it is to report COVID-19 studies in a sensationalistic way, often causing fear in the reader. In this case, the opinion piece reported the key findings in a fair and accurate manner in line with the evidence available from the published study. It was emphasised that this was the largest COVID brain imaging study to date, and how COVID-19 infection might cause grey matter loss and cognitive decline. The limitations of the study were also highlighted. A major one was that brain scans were taken before the outbreak of the widespread omicron variant, which may affect the brain differently than the initial viruses.

Should we then be worried about our brain function if we are infected by COVID-19? The answer is not really. Despite being the largest study to date, 400 patients are still not a representative sample of the global scale of COVID-19, especially considering a cohort of patients of the same ethnicity. Moreover, loss of grey matter and cognitive decline are a physiological event that happen anyway as we age. The greatest risk is therefore in the old population, who may have their smelling impaired after being infected with the virus.

Social media negatively impacts teenagers but perhaps only at certain ages 

Written by Ailbhe McKinney, PhD Researcher at the University of Edinburgh and Dr Sinead Rhodes, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh.

The association between mental health and social media is complex. It is not as simple as social media does or does not cause poor emotional well-being. There is also emerging research that the relationship goes both ways; that when a person is feeling low, they go on social media more, perhaps to make themselves feel better suggesting it is a coping mechanism for some people. As Ed Sheeran recently said in an interview, “whenever I see a selfie, I want to reach out to that person”. 

A team from the University of Cambridge, University of Oxford, University College London, and Radboud University Medical Center, recently tried to disentangle the complicated relationship between life satisfaction and social media use by examining the different effects it can have on girls and boys and at different ages. 

Key concepts box: Cross-sectional data: data collected at one time. Example: Comparing mental health scores of people of different ages like comparing the mental health of children with teenagers. Longitudinal data: data collected at two or more time points. Example: Comparing mental health scores of the same people at different times. Comparing data collected two years apart from the same people. 

In their study published in Nature Communications, Dr Amy Orben and colleagues looked at cross-sectional data (see key concepts box) with a sample size of 72,287 people aged 10-80 years. They found that the association between social media use (how many hours someone reports they spend on social media a day) and their life satisfaction (measured by a questionnaire) changes with age. Their findings show the strongest negative relationship during adolescence meaning as social media use goes up, life satisfaction goes down. However, with cross-sectional data, you cannot say which came first, just that they are linked as we have described in a ‘how to research the headlines’ post. The same thing affecting someone in a different way at a different age is called a sensitivity period

The research team then looked more closely at this sensitivity period with longitudinal data (key concepts box) with 17,409 participants aged 10-21 years. They found a gender difference during adolescence. For girls aged 11-13, an increase in social media use predicted a drop in life satisfaction one year later. The same result was found for boys but a little later at 14-15 years of age. This finding suggests that social media affects girls more at this sensitive period of 11-13 years and affects boys more at 14-15 years. This could be because these are the ages girls and boys go through puberty. Social media use did not predict life dissatisfaction at other ages. 

How did the media report the study? 

This study received a lot of media attention (ForbesThe GuardianThe New York Times, and the BBC ) probably given people’s interest in social media’s impact on young people. 

The methodology was reported well in both The Guardian and the BBC in that they explain one of the main limitations is that the study did not measure what social media young people are using (Instagram vs twitter vs WhatsApp vs TikTok) and what they are doing on them (posting photos, waiting for likes, watching videos of cats, talking to friends). This will be important for the next steps in research on social media and mental health. 

It is good to see the Guardian and the BBC mentioned social media companies’ role in this research in providing accurate data. This point could have been explained a little more by noting that the social media use was measured using self-report assessment i.e. asking how long a person spends on social media opposed to objectively measuring it. 

It would have been good to see the strength of the evidence discussed more across news outlets. The study was strong in the sense that the sample size was large, collected longitudinal data at seven time points and used statistical analysis which checked the direction of the relationship (i.e. which came first). While the study cannot prove that the nature of the relationship between social media and life satisfaction, it provides high-quality evidence. 

How can this study be applied to everyday life?

The study’s findings are based on averages. We cannot say for certain a teenage girl using Instagram at 11 years will become less happy and when she turns 14 years old, she can use social media as she pleases with no repercussions. The study shows what’s known as an effect at the population level meaning not everyone will follow this trend. Social media can be a positive thing in a teenager’s life, especially in a pandemic. Parents should ask their children how it makes them feel and, perhaps pay a little more attention to their child’s use at age 11-13 for girls and 14-15 for boys. 

What can ancient DNA tell us about migrations into ancient Britain?

This blog was written by Dr Manuel Fernández-Götz (School of History, Classics and Archaeology, University of Edinburgh).

Ancient DNA (aDNA) studies are revolutionising our understanding of the human past, particularly through the identification of migrations in prehistoric times. The interpretation of migratory movements has been heavily debated in archaeology since the 19th century. While the appearance of new objects or cultural traditions in a region can sometimes point to the arrival of new populations, other alternative explanations such as trade or diffusion of ideas are often also possible. Over the last two decades, the increasing application of bioarchaeological methods, e.g. aDNA analyses, is helping to shed new light on old debates, as well as to uncover hitherto unknown scenarios of large-scale migrations. This is the case with a new study first published in December 2021 in Nature, which suggests the existence of large-scale migratory movements from continental Europe into Britain during the Middle to Late Bronze Age, more specifically in the period from ca. 1300-750 BC. 

This research is part of the large-scale projects undertaken in recent years by the Harvard genetics lab directed by Prof David Reich and his collaborators around the world. In this case, the article brings together over 200 scholars (myself among them), including the team led by Prof Ian Armit from the University of York, who is directing the COMMIOS Project, funded by the European Research Council. In this paper, the authors bring together the results from sequencing the genomes of nearly 800 Bronze and Iron Age individuals from Britain and various parts of the European continent. The results corroborate the existence of significant connectivity across the English Channel in the Middle and Late Bronze Age, including not only the movement of goods, but also people. The most notable outcome of the analyses is that Early European farmer (EEF) ancestry, coming from the continent, increased significantly in England and Wales between 1000 and 875 BC, due to the arrival of migrants during this period and in the immediately preceding centuries. These newcomers seem to have been genetically most similar to individuals from France, although their precise area of origin still needs to be further determined by future studies. 

Although aDNA does not tell us, in itself, what language people spoke, the combination of different strands of evidence (genetics, archaeology, and linguistics) allows for some plausible hypotheses to be established. In this sense, the new results from the Nature article open the possibility that Celtic languages could have been introduced to Britain from the continent as part of these Late Bronze Age population movements. This hypothesis would fit well with the idea of ‘Celtic from the centre’ as proposed in 2020 by Prof Patrick Sims-Williams (Aberystwyth University) on the basis of linguistic and archaeological evidence. According to him, it is likely that early Celtic languages spread from Gaul (mainly present-day France) into Britain in the first millennium BC. 

How was this article covered in the media? The publication has attracted wide media coverage in the UK and abroad, in most cases with a rather adequate representation of the data. The BBC explained the findings accurately while also giving context for its meaning, for example by stating that this migration from France may be how Celtic languages came to Britain. However, with a quote from an expert on aDNA from Trinity College Dublin (Dr Lara Cassidy), the article indicates the findings do not show for certain that this is how Celtic languages arrived in Britain, although it lends evidence to this idea. They included statements from co-authors of the study and independent experts in the field, strengthening the reporting of the research. 

The Daily Mail portrayed the findings largely accurately while also including useful maps, although the term ‘displaced’ used in the headline does not appear in the original article. A positive aspect of the Daily Mail report was the addition of boxes with extra, relevant information (e.g. explaining when the Bronze Age was and the practices associated with this period) to give the reader context for understanding the rest of the piece. This addition is helpful for interested readers with no background in prehistory. Both the BBC and the Daily Mail were clear about how the researchers did not know why this migration took place or where exactly the migrants came from although it was likely from France. 

Why is this research important? Celtic languages are still spoken in various Atlantic regions including Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, and researching their origins is not only relevant from an academic perspective, but also for people for whom the use of a Celtic language continues to represent an important part of their identity. On a broader level, aDNA corroborates that the history of humankind is one of migrations, since its very beginnings to the present, and that Britain is no exception to this. Looking at population movements and their impact from a ‘deep history’ perspective can contribute to a better understanding of present-day migrations and counteract isolationist narratives. People have always moved and mixed, to various degrees, and will continue to do so in the future. We are, very much, Homo migrans