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:
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.|
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.]