TIME Research

Teens Are Spending a Ton of Time In Front of Screens, CDC Says

The majority of young people spend a lot of time in front of the TV or computer

A recent report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows 98.5% of young people between ages 12–15 report watching TV daily, and 91.1% report using a computer every day outside of school. And the vast majority of them were getting more than two hours a day of screen time, which is the upper limit recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Girls were slightly more likely to follow that guideline than boys.

The study also found that obese and overweight kids were more likely to have more screen time.

Spending excessive time using a computer and watching TV has been linked to higher blood pressure, higher cholesterol, and being overweight or obese. We also know how bad sitting is for your health, and most screen time happens in people who aren’t moving around. That’s why adolescent groups recommend a two-hour cap. You can see the data break-down below.

Percentage of youth aged 12–15 reporting 2 hours or less of TV viewing and computer use daily, by sex: United States, 2012

SOURCES: CDC/NCHS, National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) and NHANES National Youth Fitness Survey, 2012. CDC National Center for Health Statistics

Percentage of youth aged 12–15 reporting 2 hours or less of TV viewing and computer use daily, by weight status: United States, 2012

SOURCES: CDC/NCHS, National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) and NHANES National Youth Fitness Survey, 2012. CDC National Center for Health Statistics
TIME Research

Study: Interrupted Sleep May Be as Harmful as No Sleep at All

Sleep Medicine Booms In The United States
Ryan Gamble has wires applied to his head by lab technologist Amy Bender in preparation for a polysomnographic recording system demonstration at Washington State University Spokane's Sleep and Performance Research Center December 13, 2006 in Spokane, Washington. Jeff T. Green—Getty Images

Just one night of interrupted sleep negatively affected mood, attention span and cognitive ability

Fragmented sleep could be as physically harmful as a total lack of sleep, according to an unprecedented study.

Lead researcher Prof. Avi Sadeh and his team at Tel Aviv University found that an interrupted night of sleep — which is common for doctors and new parents — is similar to having only four hours of consistent sleep. The experiment published in the journal Sleep Medicine studied the sleep patterns of students using wristwatches that monitored when they were asleep or awake.

Students slept a full eight-hours one night followed by a night of interrupted sleep in which they received four phone calls directing them to complete a brief computer exercise before returning to bed. The morning after both nights, the volunteers completed tasks to measure their attention span and emotional state — results proved that just one night of interrupted sleep had negative effects on mood, attention span and cognitive ability.

Sadeh believes that several nights of fragmented sleep could have long-term negative consequences equivalent to missing out on slumber altogether. “We know that these effects accumulate and therefore the functional price new parents — who awaken three to ten times a night for months on end — pay for common infant sleep disturbance is enormous,” he said in a statement.

The study also acknowledged that many people of varying ages and professions are susceptible to fragmented sleep — a finding that Sadeh hopes will provide an impetus for creating solutions. “I hope that our study will bring this to the attention of scientists and clinicians, who should recognize the price paid by individuals who have to endure frequent night-wakings,” Sadeh said.

TIME Research

Scientists Are Getting Closer to a Blood Test for Alzheimer’s

Brain of a patient affected by Alzheimers disease
Brain of a patient affected by Alzheimers disease Getty Images

The new prediction method had 87% accuracy in a recent study

A team of scientists have identified 10 proteins in the blood that can predict the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

The study, which was published in the journal Alzheimer’s & Dementia, looked at more than 1,000 people and is considered a significant step toward the development of a blood test for Alzheimer’s. The trouble with the disease is that developing drug treatments is difficult since they are often given in clinical trials when the disease has already progressed too far. The hope is that identifying the disease earlier could pave the way for drugs to halt its progression.

In the study, researchers examined blood samples from 1,148 people. There were 476 with Alzheimer’s, 220 with ‘Mild Cognitive Impairment’ (MCI) and 452 elderly control subjects who did not have dementia. All the blood samples were tested for 26 proteins that were previously linked to Alzheimer’s, and some the participants also had an MRI scan on their brain. First, the researchers found that 16 of the 26 proteins were strongly linked to brain shrinkage that happens with Alzheimer’s and MCI. In a second round of testing, researchers looked at which of the 16 could predict if MCI became Alzheimer’s. It was then that they found the combination of 10 proteins that were able to predict which people with MCI would eventually get Alzheimer’s within a year. The prediction method had 87% accuracy.

“Memory problems are very common, but the challenge is identifying who is likely to develop dementia,” slead study author Dr. Abdul Hye from the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London said in a statement. “There are thousands of proteins in the blood, and this study is the culmination of many years’ work identifying which ones are clinically relevant. We now have a set of 10 proteins that can predict whether someone with early symptoms of memory loss, or mild cognitive impairment, will develop Alzheimer’s disease within a year, with a high level of accuracy.”

Detecting the disease early-on could be a major breakthrough for clinical trials and would be less expensive than current methods that use brain imaging or cerebrospinal spinal fluid to identify the disease.

 

TIME Family

Children of Same-Sex Parents Are Healthier: Study

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Getty Images

Children of same-sex parents have above average health and well-being, research by the University of Melbourne shows.

The research was based on data from the Australian Study of Child Health in Same-Sex Families, which involved input from 315 same-sex parents and a total of 500 children. Of these participating families, 80 percent had female parents while 18 percent had male partners.

“It appears that same-sex parent families get along well and this has a positive impact on health,” said Dr Simon Crouch from the Jack Brockhoff Child Health and Wellbeing Program, Centre for Health Equity at the University of Melbourne.

Read the rest of the story at NBC News

TIME Research

This Infographic Shows Which World Cup Team Has The Loudest Fans

An unscientific recording of fans' cheering predicts which team will win the World Cup

An expert audiologist with the Hear the World Foundation recorded sound during all four quarter final World Cup games in Sao Paulo, Brazil. When the decibel level spiked above 90, the audiologist recorded the level and for which team the cheering was intended. At the end of each game, the average decibel level of each team’s fans was calculated by adding the decibel levels at each spike, divided by the total number of spikes. Hearing is put into jeopardy at just 90 decibels.

Check out the infographic below for a prediction on who will win the World Cup based on having the loudest fans.

Hear the World Foundation
TIME Research

Heavy Metal Headbanging Causes Brain Damage, Science Says

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Man thrashes head while playing guitar. Jim Arbogast—Getty Images

Mötorhead fan teaches science something you already knew

A 50-year-old man who went to the doctor with a persistent and worsening two-week old headache gave himself brain damage by headbanging at a heavy metal concert, according to new research.

In January 2013, the man stumped doctors at the Hannover Medical School after he presented an unremarkable medical record and denied substance abuse. “He had no history of head trauma, but reported headbanging at a Motörhead concert 4 weeks previously,” says the study, which appears in the latest issue of The Lancet.

The study authors describe headbanging as “a contemporary dance form consisting of abrupt flexion—extension movements of the head to the rhythm of rock music, most commonly seen in the heavy metal genre.

“Headbanging was introduced in the early 1970s,” the authors add. “The number of avid aficionados is unknown.”

A cranial CT scan found the patient had given himself a chronic subdural haematoma—a blood clot—on the right side of his brain. Surgeons removed the clot and the man was released with his headache resolved.

“While such shows are enjoyable and stimulating for the audience, some fans might be endangered by indulging in excessive headbanging,” the study says.

So, for those who are about to rock, headbang with care.

TIME technology

Facebook’s Controversial Experiment: Big Tech Is the New Big Pharma

Facebook Privacy Flaw Exposes Private Photos
The Facebook logo is reflected in the eyeglasses of a user in San Francisco on Dec. 7, 2011. Bloomberg/Getty Images

Research in digital media is turning data science into human subjects research.

It seems nearly everyone is angry about Facebook’s already infamous emotional manipulation study—most recently, European regulators. A number of solid objections to both the study itself and to what it reveals about Facebook have been raised, but Facebook and a few others initially defended the study by saying such experiments in user-experience design are something they do all the time, just ordinary industry R&D.

I never thought I’d say this, but Facebook is technically correct. They actually are shaping and manipulating your experiences on the site all the time. Facebook’s very design encourages sharing positive emotions more than negative ones, and its mysterious algorithms pick and choose who gets to see what content. But it’s not just Facebook. Any and every platform on the Web that uses algorithms is also manipulating what you see on their sites (a more generous term might be “automagically curating”), and most platforms aren’t transparent about what they’re doing or how they’re doing it. The truth is that you’ve been a lab rat for at least as long as you’ve used online media. You just didn’t notice before.

But does the mere fact that such practices are commonplace make them right? And to what standards should we hold people who do research on social media? Should research subjects really have fewer rights simply because a corporation has a profit motive?

In truth there’s nothing particularly remarkable about the emotional contagion study, other than the fact a couple of academics were involved and someone decided to call the study “science” by publishing it in the journal PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences). Yet, we haven’t always given corporate research free rein, especially when it comes to covert manipulation.

By academic research standards, however, the emotional contagion study falls short. Facebook failed to get informed consent from participants in the study, and some have argued it risked pushing emotionally vulnerable users over the edge by making them more sad without debriefing them after the fact. Academic research on human subjects usually has to be approved by the host institution’s institutional review board (IRB), a group of people from various disciplines who evaluate research proposals before studies take place. This is to ensure the safety of the people who participate in the studies, and most prestigious scientific journals will only publish papers about studies that were IRB approved.

It looks now as though the emotional contagion study may not have been evaluated by an IRB. PNAS has said it decided to trust whatever IRB had initially approved the study, but Cornell’s IRB says it ruled the study exempt from its oversight because, while the two Cornell researchers helped to design the experiment and to analyze the results, they were not directly involved in collecting any data. This means all ethical oversight for the experiment goes back to Facebook, which is rather like leaving the proverbial fox to guard the henhouse.

And yet, IRBs aren’t a magic bullet. They can be more interested in avoiding lawsuits than in protecting research subjects. Their evaluation criteria are tailored to medical and biological research, and are therefore poorly suited to research in the social sciences. Even the most ethical of researchers will admit that IRB review can be tedious and time-consuming. Only (some) research that involves human subjects needs IRB approval, and one could argue that digital media platforms’ experiments are data science rather than human subjects research.

The Facebook study therefore spans a few different categories: is it human subjects research or is it data science? Is it scientific/academic research (and therefore potentially subject to IRB oversight) or is it corporate/marketing research (and therefore anything goes)? These distinctions, however, are part of the problem—and perhaps a bigger problem than the study itself.

Corporate research and academic research have been blurring together for some time. Before its regulatory tangle with the FDA, for instance, the direct-to-consumer genetic testing cum social networking company 23andMe was able to publish findings in the academic journal Public Library of Science (though gaining acceptance for publication was an involved process, largely because PLoS was more careful about 23andMe’s IRB review than PNAS was about Facebook’s). 23andMe is now seeking to reenter medical research by collaborating with academic researchers; Twitter is offering “data grants” to research institutions; Facebook is seeking sociologists, though it wants the “digital demography” sort rather than the “critiques of power” sort; Snapchat actually hired a critique-and-theory sociologist. Pharmaceutical companies hire university hospitals to conduct clinical trials, and—as government and foundation funding for research dwindles, especially in the social sciences—universities and their departments increasingly depend on corporate funding to stay afloat.

Nor is the line between “person” and “data” so clear anymore. Digital technologies have become so integrated into how we experience the world that my colleague PJ Rey and I argue the digital social technologies we use count as part of ourselves. This means that, even if the Facebook study is data science, it is also human subjects research—even if Facebook never experimented directly on people’s physical bodies.

We need to create new basic standards for social and behavioral research, and these standards must apply equally to corporations and institutions, to market researchers and academic researchers, to data scientists and social scientists alike. At minimum, these standards should include informed consent the way I learned it in my graduate training as a sociologist, rather than as an aside buried in an undecipherable Terms of Service agreement that few people even attempt to read. (Note the participation-rate success of 23andMe’s research arm, which used to be called “23andWe.” Whatever else one might say about the venture, 23andWe did demonstrate not only that people like to be asked for consent, but that given an opportunity to contribute to “science,” quite a number of folks will opt in and volunteer to share their data.)

We also need to design a new review process that can more readily accommodate both social scientific research methods and the realities of life in the increasingly digitized 21st Century, and this process must be both transparent to the public and not unduly cumbersome to researchers. Facebook has since apologized (sort of) for the emotional contagion study, and has said it will change how it handles research in the future. But if the end result of the blowup over the study is that corporations’ social and behavioral research retreats further into secrecy and away from independent oversight of any kind, then everyone loses.

Whitney Erin Boesel is a Fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, a Visiting Scholar at the MIT Center for Civic Media, and a PhD student in Sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She’s active on Twitter as @weboesel.

TIME Research

Study: Plants Can ‘Hear’ Their Attackers’ Approach

caterpillar eating a leaf
Close up of a monarch caterpillar, Danaus plexippus, feeding on a milkweed leaf. Darlyne A. Murawski—Getty Images/National Geographic Creative

Some plants can hear and react to enemy caterpillars

Some plants can hear caterpillars eating leaves and respond by emitting caterpillar-repelling chemicals, according to a new study published in the journal Oecologia.

Scientists have known that certain plants respond to sound vibrations—corn roots, for example, lean toward vibrations of a specific frequency—but until now it hasn’t been clear why they’re able to do so. In this experiment, researchers from University of Missouri exposed one set of plants to a recording of caterpillars eating plants and found they emitted more of the anti-caterpillar chemical and did it more quickly than the plants that weren’t exposed to the sound.

The researchers also found that background noise like wind or insects had no impact on the plants, indicating that the plants could distinguish the sound of their attackers.

Now the researchers are looking for the “ears” of the plants that allow them to hear, though they suspect they take the form of proteins known as “mechanoreceptors” found in plants and animals that respond to pressure.

TIME Stem Cells

Blockbuster Stem-Cell Studies Retracted Because of Fraud

Editors of Nature, which published two papers claiming to generate stem cells in a simplified way, are retracting both papers after data was “misrepresented.”

In an editorial published on Wednesday, editors at the scientific journal Nature announced their decision to retract two papers that received wide media attention, including by TIME, for apparently dramatically simplifying the process of creating stem cells. Genetically manipulating older, mature cells are the only confirmed methods for reprogramming them back to their embryonic state, but in the Nature papers, Japanese scientists claimed to have accomplished the feat by physical means, using an acidic bath or physical stress.

Several months after the papers were published, one of the co-authors, from the RIKEN Institute, called for their retraction, saying “I’m no longer sure that the articles are correct.” RIKEN’s own probe determined that the studies’ lead author, Haruko Obokata, was guilty of misconduct.

At the time, Nature launched its own investigation into concerns that some of the figures in the paper contained errors, and that parts of the text were plagiarized. The journal now says that “data that were an essential part of the authors’ claims have been misrepresented. Figures that were described as representing different cells and different embryos were in fact describing the same cells and the same embryos.”

MORE: Stem-Cell Scientist Guilty of Falsifying Data

While scientific journals have peer-review processes to check researchers’ work, they rely on the fact that the scientists are presenting their data in their entirety and without any biases—something that didn’t occur in this case.

Nature’s editors say they are reviewing their review process and intend to improve on the way they select articles to ensure that such mistakes are minimized.

TIME Research

Here’s Why Tibetans Can Live Comfortably At Crazy-High Altitudes

Tibetans Can Live at High Altitudes
The Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet. Dave Bartruff—Getty Images

Ancient mating patterns seem to have given these plateau dwellers an odd advantage

When you or I go up to high altitude, we gasp for a while, maybe faint, and then gradually adapt. The way we do it is by furiously generating more red blood cells, to increase the blood’s ability to absorb oxygen, which gets thinner the higher we go. But we pay a price: all of those extra blood cells can make the blood sticky, leading to a risk of high blood pressure, heart attack and, in pregnant women, the delivery of low-birth-weight babies.

We pay that price, that is, unless we’re natives of the Tibetan plateau, where people live more or less cheerfully at altitudes of 13,000 feet and more. The secret lies in their genes—mostly in a gene known as EPAS1, which allows them to absorb scarce oxygen without creating extra blood cells. But while genetic traits are often created by mutations within a given species, this one evidently came from outside. According to a paper just published in the current Nature, the Tibetans’ ancestors evidently mated with a now extinct human species known as the Denisovans, which went extinct somewhere around 40,000 years ago.

It’s no surprise that matings have happened between modern humans and other human species. We share a fair number of genes with the more familiar Neanderthals, for example, who were the Denisovan’s distant cousins. But it’s not clear (although it’s certainly possible) that Neanderthal genes gave our ancestors any specific evolutionary advantages.

For Tibetans, though, the high-altitude gene allowed them to colonize a region nobody else could survive (some Han Chinese, which make up more than 90% of the population of China, also have the gene, but it’s relatively rare). “We found part of the EPAS1 gene in Tibetans is almost identical to the gene in Denisovans,” said lead author Rasmus Nielsen, of the University of California, Berkeley, in a statement, ” and very different from all other humans.”

What’s perhaps even more surprising is that the scientists had Denisovan genes to work with in the first place. “The only reason we can say that this bit of DNA is Denisovan, said Nielsen, “is is because of this lucky accident of sequencing DNA from a little bone found in a cave in Siberia. We found the Denisovan species at the DNA level, but how many other species are out there that we haven’t sequenced?”

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