No, that study can’t tell you how to raise your kids

The problem with science in the media…

…they’re wrong 90% of the time (totally not made up statistic).  Here’s a run-down of the problem:

Step 1:  Someone somewhere decides to do a study, most likely with a tiny sample size, studying something really arbitrary, and possibly on rats.

Step 2:  Study is published in a respectable academic journal.

Step 3:  Journalists read said study, then wonder to themselves how they can make it sound more interesting because clicks = money.

Step 4:  Journalists write up an article reporting the findings of said study in the most misleading way possible, through a mixture of intentional sensationalism and a complete lack of knowledge of how to read a scientific journal article.

Case in point, this article posted yesterday in the Huffington Post, titled “New Study Determines the Best Way to Discipline Your Teen.”  Okay, being a parent is hard.  Your kid is going to do things that you don’t want them to do, sometimes dangerous things, and it’s your job as a parent to figure out how to prevent them from doing those things twice.  You probably don’t have any clue whether or not your chosen technique is the best way to prevent your kid from doing things like running out into traffic.

Then you see an article like this one, and you think, “Thank God, a scientifically verified answer to the great discipline debate!”  And if you don’t look closely, you might take what it says to heart, knowing that you have just solved one of the greatest mysteries of the planet: how to keep your teenager out of trouble.  Thing is, we should really, really be looking more closely.

This article is just an example of an ever-present problem.  Headlines exaggerate effects or even proclaim them where none was found.  So what exactly is wrong with this article?

British researchers have some interesting advice for parents who spend their lives taking away cell phones and tablets as punishment: Don’t. Adolescent brains respond better to positive incentives and aren’t all that motivated to avoid penalties.

There is a clue here in this first paragraph that the article might be exaggerating the scientific findings.  We see that what researchers actually found is that adolescent brains respond better to incentives than penalties.  If you’ve had a research or statistics class, then the first part of that sentence should be a red flag when paired with the last part.  The last part is the actual findings.  The first part is the journalist taking some liberties with those findings because “adolescent brains respond better to positive incentives than penalties” doesn’t make for a very interesting headline.

As we read on, we get a summary of the study itself.  Turns out the study didn’t really focus on disciplining teens—it was a learning exercise in which adults and adolescents played a computer game and had to choose symbols as they appeared on the screen.  Some symbols gave a reward (points), some gave a punishment (take away points), some gave nothing.

You might be wondering what that would have to do with discipline.  The answer is it doesn’t, not directly, anyway.  What the study is looking at is the ways in which brains function.  It isn’t meant to be applicable to real life in the way that the article is implying.  At best, it is a study that could function as a jumping-off point for other studies that might want to more directly look at how differences in brain function between adults and teens could influence behavior.

Okay, so the study isn’t exactly about discipline.  It still found that adolescents only responded to rewards, while adults responded to rewards and punishment.  Clearly that shows a difference in thinking that must be biological, thus we should really change the way we discipline our kids to accommodate that biological change!

This is one of the biggest traps of “scientific” reporting.  It’s called making a causal claim out of a correlation.  The problem is that life is rarely as clear-cut as the media makes it sound.  Relationships between two things may not be as common sense as they first seem.  Take violent video games as an example.  Every time there is a mass shooting done by a young male, there are news articles that will tell you that the perpetrator was a fan of violent video games.  Sometimes it will directly state that those games must be an influence.  Other times it will just be a mention.  The murderer spent twelve hours a day playing Call of Duty (you’re supposed to connect the dots there yourself).

The problem is that no studies have actually found that video games turn a person into a mass shooter.  Implying such overlooks the fact that a) millions of people play violent games and don’t shoot people, and b) that perhaps violent people prefer violent video games.  Not so clear-cut anymore, is it?

In this study, the problem is that we cannot actually assume that the differences in brains found between adults and teens are intrinsically biological.  If it is true that all teens everywhere, no matter what environment they are raised in, will respond in this manner, then yes, we should be taking it into consideration when deciding how to discipline our kids.

However, we don’t know that.  Teenagers today are not being raised with the same styles of discipline that adults were raised with.  Many adults were disciplined primarily with punishment.  There has been a shift over the last couple of decades away from punishment and toward reward.  Rightly or wrongly, many parents now use bribes, time-outs, etc., instead of the corporal punishments and shaming that might have been used on them as children.   There has been an increase in helicopter parents who actively try avoid negative consequences for their children.  Who’s to say that a child being raised in that type of setting will not naturally favor reward over punishment?

In other words, it’s possible that this study proves only that differences in current reward/punishment systems create brain differences.  It might also show that there really is a biological difference.   We don’t know because the study didn’t ask that.

The point is, what we should get out of the study itself is that there is an interesting difference present between adults and teens, that we cannot attribute it to any particular causation, and that the difference should be studied more so that we can learn whether or not it has an influence on behavior.

Doesn’t sound like it would get as many clicks, though, does it?



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