Wednesday, June 29, 2011

WSJ Redux: Let's Talk Research

I need to apologize right now for the length of this post. And maybe the topic. I really didn't intend to respond to Meghan Cox Gurdon's most recent opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal. I responded to her first one, and, in general, I am truly uninterested in debates in which the opposing parties repeat the same arguments, only louder.

But then I read the thing (and was asked about it on Twitter), and ... oh, she (sort of) cited some research:
There are real-world reasons for caution. For years, federal researchers could not understand why drug- and tobacco-prevention programs seemed to be associated with greater drug and tobacco use. It turned out that children, while grasping the idea that drugs were bad, also absorbed the meta-message that adults expected teens to take drugs. Well-intentioned messages, in other words, can have the unintended consequence of opening the door to expectations and behaviors that might otherwise remain closed.
Wow. That is a mighty strong claim. Allow me to unpack it for you. If you're wondering (I know I was, since she didn't cite any specific studies), I believe she's referring to research on Drug Abuse and Resistance Education (DARE) and a few similar programs.

A few bits of contextual information:
  1. DARE is a zero-tolerance program that involves police officers teaching the anti-drug curriculum to kids--starting when they're in elementary school. Researchers' explanations of why DARE isn't effective include limited opportunity to practice social skills involved in drug refusal, as well as presenting material and concepts to kids who are too young to understand it (the Surgeon General's report is here).
  2. Although Mrs. Gurdon makes it sound like prevention programs definitely lead to an increase in substance use in kids, and there are a few studies that found increased risk for substance use associated with DARE, the bulk of the evidence suggests DARE is mostly just ineffective. It has some positive effects that decay over time, and overall, results show that kids who've gone through the program are no less likely to use substances than kids who haven't had DARE.
  3. Numerous other substance abuse prevention programs have been found to be effective, specifically, those that involve practicing social skills related to refusal, making the interventions developmentally appropriate, and dissemination of accurate information regarding social norms related to drug and alcohol use. If you're curious, go to this incredibly useful site and click "substance abuse prevention" to find a comprehensive listing of evidence-based programs.

This is your brain on YA.
That social norm bit up there is the link. In her attempt to support her point about YA books "normalizing" stuff like self-mutilation, drug use, killing reapers with Khopesh swords, and kissing vampires, I *think* Mrs. Gurdon is alluding to the research on social norms that indicates that, if you give people information about how their peers behave, they're more likely to conform to that standard. That's the social learning theory I mentioned in my response to her first opinion piece. And you know what? That shouldn't be dismissed. Peer pressure is not just a kid standing next to you, whispering "do it do it do it ..." If you believe everyone around you is doing something, you're more likely to do it, even if no one tells you to do it.

This is what fuels the bandwagon effect. It's real. If YA books make teens believe that nearly everybody's engaging in self-harm, that could be a problem. Perhaps we could actually do some research before we assume that's how teens think when they read a book like Cheryl Rainfield's SCARS, though?

In addition, Gurdon's argument about YA is strikingly narrow. It doesn't hold up for other mental illnesses, trauma, and membership in minority cultural/ethnic/sexual/gender-identity groups. Reading about someone with OCD won't give you OCD, for example. Reading about this stuff *might*, however, help you see individuals who are different from you as worthy of respect, kindness, and equality. But if her concern is that kids will understand that one in five of their classmates is struggling with a mental illness, or if it helps them avoid assumptions about the preferences and backgrounds of their peers, or if it helps them realize they're not the only one having those feelings ... er, wait. Is that a problem?

Please consider a few other things as well. First, inaccurate social norming is not the primary criticism of those substance abuse prevention programs. It's one of them, but note it's not the only one. My concern about Mrs. Gurdon's quote is that she seems to be saying that substance abuse prevention programs are BAD because adults are talking about these issues with kids, or, at least, providing them with information, and OMG THAT'S SO WRONG.

We have a decent amount of evidence to suggest that when adults take a ZERO-tolerance, highly restrictive approach to just about anything, kids are not going to automatically fall into line. There's research to show that using scare tactics to keep kids on the straight and narrow does NOT work. And--withholding information from kids might be harmful. That's certainly what one study seemed to indicate when it showed that kids who received abstinence-only sex education were just as likely to have sex as their peers--but they were less likely to use protection. That's in contrast to the kids who received comprehensive sex education (which includes abstinence). To read a review of research on both types of programs (from the Journal of Adolescent Health), go here.

Second, is the information kids get through music, video games, television programs, movies, and social networking sites the same as information delivered via literature? I'm not sure, but IF you were to do a survey of where and how kids get their information about self-mutilation, substance use, and sexual behaviors, my guess is ... it isn't from a YA book.

Third, and just for fun, the idea of books as therapeutic is far from new. And also: more time spent reading is associated with lower levels of depression (note I'm not claiming reading causes those lower levels, but interestingly, the opposite is true of time spent listening to music).

And finally, let me tell you, the mechanisms surrounding the emergence of mental illness in young people are complex, varied, and far more fundamental roots than the YA books kids read (for those who do read ...).

The big-bang-for-your-buck variables (apart from genetics)? Parenting. Social environment. Trauma.

Part of me sort of wants to scream WHY ARE WE WASTING TIME TALKING ABOUT THIS instead of supporting parents to really engage with their kids, become educated and empowered consumers of both research and literature, and make good decisions about how to guide their teens? How about we talk about how to get more teens to read? Oh, heck, why don't we all go and work on our WIPs?

Once again, I'm done. Your turn.

Did you bother to read Mrs. Gurdon's second opinion piece? Did you find it more convincing than the first? Are you swayed when people cite research results? How do you judge the accuracy of that information and whether it is being used appropriately? [If anyone's ever interested, I have tons of information on this subject and would be happy to do a blog post--I've taught a short course for mental health professionals on how to be smart consumers of research.]


  1. Do you have it out for that girl, or what? *snorts* I love it when you put your uber brain behind your blog post. Love. It.

    For me, you said it with one word: Parenting. But you know how I feel about this sorta thing so I won't go all long-winded on my response.

    Because of the indepth words you've provided here, I don't feel then need to read Ms. Know-It-Alls, ahem ... I mean Mrs. Gurdon's piece. The last one ticked me off bad enough.

    The problem with the articles people like this write are that those who read it DON'T judge the accuracy. Most people take it as "fact" when most of it is based on "opinion" or stretching of random and obscure research. People don't put the time and effort into finding things that back up the claims because they think, "Hey, if this chic is writing for the WSJ, she's got to have some cred so I should believe the stuff she "cites"." And that, my friends, if where WE all get into a world of trouble. Believing the unbelievable.

    That is all. ;-)


  2. I'm writing this comment before even reading your post, because it's something that pisses me off.

    Repression does not make things like addiction disappear. The War on Drugs has created far more addicts in our country than it has saved. You know what countries have the fewest people addicted to drugs? Places like Canada, Holland, and France. Where they accept that the darker side of life exists, and face it head on.

    Sorry. I'll read now.

  3. Okay. To answer your questions, I did read the second piece. About half of it, before I got bored. She was making broad and obviously erroneous claims without citing ANYTHING of any substance, and I just couldn't take it. I scanned down to the end to see how she got made at Sherman Alexie.

    For me all of this comes back to repression, denial, fear, and lazy parenting. I think that the kind of people who would fall for these arguments are really just people who are terrified of communicating openly and honestly with their children.

    My youngest daughter is ten years old. Do I want her to spend her days thinking about heroin addicts, human trafficking of young women out of Eastern Europe, or people who are so lost in the depths of chemical imbalance or depression that they cut themselves because it's the only way they know of to feel better?

    Hell no. But if one of those topics somehow manages to make its way into her awareness organically, I'm sure as shit not going to lie to her and throw sparkly glitter in her face.

    The world is an amazing place. Full of wonder, but also full of darkness. To deny either is the quickest way to set your children up for failure, or worse, for harm.

  4. Okay, to elaborate: Yes, we read the follow-up, and yes, we thought it was "better." Namely b/c she doesn't make AS many unfounded, sweeping statements, and b/c the WSJ labeled it correctly this time, as OPINION.

    That said, it still frustrated and worried us, and we appreciate your thoughtful, educated response.

    Unfortunately, anyone can make people listen and possibly believe, as long as they speak confidently enough. (Hello, cult leaders.) Ms. Gurdon has certainly done that.

  5. I think it's a very sad day when parents expect their kids to be taking drugs when they reach puberty. That's just...crazy. I understand why you felt the need to vent :o)

  6. When I was 18, I learned that my best friend was cutting herself. I was shocked, upset, confused, I didn't even know that cutting yourself was a *thing*. Being a good little nerd, I took to Ask Jeeves (since Google wasn't around yet) and found forums about cutting. These were mainly run by teens who were in the throws of the disease, some of whom tried to convince me that cutting was normal, healthy, and safe. At no point did it occur to me to talk to my parents (the girl's parents already knew about the situation).

    Point #1: teens are likely to know someone who is engaged in destructive behavior, and they will seek out information about it, usually from other teens.

    When I was 21, I began dating a young woman who had had eating disorders and had self-mutilated in the past, and still suffered from compulsions to hurt herself. When I expressed my shock, confusion, and concern, she gave me a memoir written by a woman who had had similar issues. I can't remember what the book was, but it had a similar cover to Scars by Cheryl Rainfield. Reading the book helped me understand what my girlfriend was going through, and also helped me to understand what my best friend had experienced.

    Point #2: A book helped me to understand others' experiences with mental illness and helped me understand how to support them. The people who need these books are NOT just the people who are self-harming (or whatever nasty, evil thing the book is about). Being a white, upper middle class suburban teenager with married, stable, loving parents didn't shelter me from exposure to these problems.

    Point #3: I experienced the ultimate YA peer pressure double-whammy. Best friend AND significant other both cut themselves (albeit at different times). Did it ever occur to me to see what all the fun was about? No! Because IT ISN'T CATCHING. We can talk about drugs later. But most of the subjects that Ms. Gurdon seemed to object to - cutting, mental illness like OCD, violence, extreme poverty, abuse, alcoholic parents, rape - these aren't things that kids are CHOOSING to do. These are things that are HAPPENING to the teen, or that are BEING DONE to the teen. Or to the teen's friends and classmates.

    You do sometimes hear about kids who learn disordered eating patterns from books about eating disorders - or they learn how to throw up, how to hide food, how to count calories, etc. But before we go blaming these books for giving these kids ideas, maybe we should examine the entire structure of our culture which sets up young women to be frantically obsessed with their weight in the first place.

  7. Yup, I agree with you (especially the last part). Parents need to be involved and engage with their children. To use the example she cited...The DARE program worked for me but that's because I was also getting support from my parents at home. A loving family environment can't prevent all hurts, but it can sure help and kids can be far less susceptible to peer or media-related influence when the parents are involved. We don't need to be blaming society's woes on books.

  8. It's so complex! Maybe there are vulnerable kids who will adopt behaviors they read about, but there's no way to keep them from info. It's out there, all over the place, in many forms. I've noticed that the reading habits of my adult friends varies tremendously based on their own backgrounds/issues, and some people have a bottomless need to read painful things as a way to feel not alone. It doesn't make them harm themselves. So teens are different, but surely a little parental empathy goes a long way to give them the skills they need to cope.

  9. Thank you, Sarah. I'm glad to see some real research here. That's all I wanted -- something concrete to understand an argument. :)

  10. I had to respond to this as well, to pretty much the exact same passage. I didn't mean to but...I had to anyway :) Your response is wonderful--mine being purely anecdotal, I'm glad to see that there's research that backs up something other than CrazyTalk. (Whoops, did I just call it that?) I just couldn't buy into the idea that, if an issue wasn't in a book they read, kids might avoid having to deal with it.

  11. I didn't read Ms. Gurdon's second post, and now I feel I don't have to.

    Your response to the controversy is amazing and rational. What I get from it is that we must keep the lines of communication open with our teens (even though currently in our house that is the equivalent of talking to the wall. I'm just grabbing on to the hormonal one's coattails and hanging on, praying "this too shall pass.")

  12. Whew! You made quite a few good points. The one that stuck out to me the most was about DARE. I agree that it's never helped to sway kids from doing drugs. Heck, after we had DARE at our school, quite a few kids went in search of the drugs Officer "Smiley" spoke about for the past week.

  13. Just look at all the great links in here with quantifiable results and proof of your argument. :) Great job!

  14. This such, such, such an awesome and well thought-out post! Thank you for taking the time to put this together!

  15. I used to work in marketing, so I'm pretty cynical (and suspicious) whenever I read an article that *mentions* research but cites nothing.

    In the marketing world, you can make anything sounds convincing when you spin it right...

    Which is why I appreciate your web site so much, because you never make a claim without also providing the supporting evidence.

  16. Hmmm, I haven't seen this second piece by the WSJ. But, wow, from what you've pointed out, it's pretty, um, striking.

    Great info, here, Sarah--thanks for unpacking all the deets! :D

  17. I've read the WSJ piece - she's not referring to the DARE program, she's referring to a school drug program from way back in the late 60s/early 70s that was intended to educate kids about drugs, but instead made drugs look really cool, and drug use did go up. It was stopped after a few years. (I'm old enough to have gone through the actual program as a child. It was pretty notorious at the time.)


  18. Laurie--hahaha! Thanks for the help with that--do you know the name of it? What makes you sure it's that program (I'm not disputing, just wondering how it's so distinct from DARE)? I'd love to take a look at the studies. This is why citations, or at least being a little more specific in what you're claiming, is really helpful (and honest).

    In general, though, it doesn't change my argument--no matter how "cool" you make OCD or other mental illnesses look in a YA book, er, it isn't going to cause incidence to go up, so the argument is very narrow, and for the behaviors to which the argument does apply, the effect of YA books is still debatable given other societal, familial, and intrapersonal variables.

  19. This is the only part of your post that I'm interested in replying to (although I agree with pretty much all you said -just don't have anything to add):
    "more time spent reading is associated with lower levels of depression (note I'm not claiming reading causes those lower levels, but interestingly, the opposite is true of time spent listening to music)."
    That is indeed interesting. Reading and music are both good things people go to for comfort, but when people listen to music, they tend to listen to music that fits the mood they're already in. So if they're depressed, they're likely to listen to negative music which isn't likely to be much help. Whereas with reading novels, readers are led to relate to and experience the feelings of the main characters. So, it seems to me, reading is much more likely to change the mood of the reader while music is more likely to reinforce whatever the listener is already feeling.

  20. you know, i went through the dare program in a graphittied elementary school just outside chicago. everyone laughed at the thing. because it was sugar coated and ridiculous and we'd all seen worse than what they adressed. we felt like they thought we were idiots. that's why it seemed like a big failure to me. what kept me off drugs was watching the older kids ruin their bodies, minds, and hurting each other. i don't know. dare definitely didn't make me want to do drugs... but it did make me try to get my mom to stop drinking (even though it was in moderation).
    i think it is really insulting to people to talk down to them. to assume that if they read about a condition, they'll emulate it. there will always be people who watch beevis and butthead and start a fire- but i suspect that there is something amiss with their thought process prior to the exposure of the "influence." if that makes sense.
    i have no desire to read this second piece by that gal. i listened to andrew smith try to voice his opinions on that mpr and be consistently ignored or brushed off. i think we should never give up speaking out for issues we're passionate about, but sometimes, i think things such as this are so ingrained in a person's philosophy that it really take one on one discussion to even get them to see that they may be erroneous in their views...
    i don't know. i'm babbling...
    i hope your writing is going well! i'm drafting right now as well, so if i'm dissappeared, don't take it personally! :) love this blog SO MUCH! thanks for the thought-provokings this evening!

  21. That's a good question about whether or not citing research sways us. I listen to NPR on my way home from work and catch shows like "Left, Right and Center" where everyone is citing research that sounds great but is all over the place.

  22. This is an interesting take on the subject. I can see how giving students strategies would be more effective than scare tactics.

    When I was a teenager, as soon as an uncool person was telling me not to do something, it suddenly became much more interesting. I recall thinking Nancy Reagan's "Say No to Drugs" campaign was ridiculous. When we were supposed to release balloons in anti-drug solidarity at my high school, my friends and me laughed at the absurdity.

    As Mark Twain says, " order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain."

    So, ban a book, and teens will line up to read it.

    Like with everything else, parents should be involved. Know what your kids are reading and discuss. Know who your kids friends are and what they're doing. Discuss sex and drugs and suicide and other dangers with them. My parents didn't know what I was doing and didn't discuss any of those topics with me. That's where the danger lies.

    I was a voracious reader (Still am). I can honestly say that no matter how difficult the subject of any novel, it didn't make me engage in any of the activities I read about.

    This is my personal experience. I haven't done research, obviously. From teaching, I can see parent involvement makes for better students, and seemingly happier people.

  23. Bluntly put, she's justifying her bullshit argument with a bullshit argument.

    This one, however, didn't really raise my hackles. Because as much as she goes on about it, I'm finding that I can't take her seriously. I mean, saying that most teens don't live in a hell of their own sort of makes her an idiot. One look at the stats will show the amount of murders, rapes, split families, emotional sicknesses etc. all of which have an effect on children and teens.

    And taking the "Monkey read, monkey do" stance definitely screams that she has no idea how a teen thinks. I've been there. Done that. Recently, even. And despite some really hellish years at high school, I didn't kill anyone, use drugs or even drink.

    Why? Because I had books to read. And (most importanty) parents to talk to about the contents.

    This isn't a problem about the contents in books. It's a problem with parental guidance. A willingness to talk about the difficult topics. It comes from avoiding things, this desire to discourage the reading and writing about certain topics.

  24. Good post Sarah. It's hard to take someone seriously when they clearly have blinders on - that's my biggest problem with her articles. When I was a teen, even a young teen, there wasn't the YA options there are now. I went from reading MG stuff to reading Stephen King, etc. It would have been much more valuable for me to read a pov that related to me, something that would make me feel more at home in my own skin...but it just wasn't as available. I think this lack of YA lit when I was growing up has made me profoundly appreciative of what will be available for my kids when they are ready.

  25. Oh, Sarah. I've been on family vacation and totally missed this second infuriating piece. Why won't this woman quit? *headpalm* Thank you for once again answering her claims with reason, logic, and facts to back it up. Yes, I clicked on the link and read it. I feel I should know what I'm dealing with. Ugh.

  26. I love your final argument. No amoiunt of 'research' replaces good ole fashioned communication :)

  27. I did not read MCG's second piece. I saw a succinct summary of it on Twitter: "I'm still right. You're all wrong. People were mean to me." (Sorry I can't credit the summarizer. I think it might have been Colleen Lindsay, but I'm not sure.)

    Sarah, I think you've looked at the issue more thoroughly than MCG ever has -- but then I doubt she wants to look at the issue thoroughly. She only want to look at research that supports the opinion she already has.

    And thanks for explaining why the DARE program disappeared. I was wondering why our school no longer had that program -- although the exact same information is now given out by our guidance counselors and health teachers.