I’m Darth Vader? Steinberg’s Latest Drama

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Note: This is a response to a guest column last month by Laurence Steinberg of Temple University, who accused Males of exaggerating and fabricating data about youth.

Laurence Steinberg is among America’s most influential, media-quoted experts on adolescents. That’s scary. He hardly gets anything right.

For starters, Steinberg expands “adolescence” whenever convenient to include adults as old as 25. Why? Because real adolescents (teens under age 18), the ones with “undeveloped brains,” display disappointingly low risks. Steinberg’s misrepresentation of the dangerous behaviors of 18- to 25-year-old adults as “adolescent risk-taking” sabotages his argument that recklessness stems from younger teens’ immature brains.

This deception underlies Steinberg’s claim that “adolescents, on average, engage in more reckless behavior than do individuals of other ages.” Actually, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control reports those ages 16 and 17 – the most dangerous adolescent years – suffered a violent death rate of 46.1 per 100,000 population in 2004, lower than the rates for every adult age group: 18-19 (70.2), 20-24 (70.6), 25-34 (58.8), 35-44 (62.6), 45-54 (65.4), 55-64 (51.4) and 65 and up (114.1). The same pattern occurs for accidents and for suicides.

Steinberg must be aware that suicide rates for middle-agers (15.6 per 100,000 for ages 35-54 in 2004) are double those for the riskiest adolescent ages (6.9 per 100,000 for ages 16-17). Adolescents and women report “attempting” suicide more, but research finds very few attempters really tried to die. If Steinberg believes adults’ greater “success” in killing themselves reflects adult brains’ superior competence (truly macabre logic), then does men’s greater success at suicide reflect the superior competence of male brains over those of females?

Steinberg states: “In 2005, preadolescents and adolescents made up 17 percent of the population, but accounted for 37 percent of the emergency room visits for treatment of illegal drug use.” Check the Drug Abuse Warning Network’s 2005 National Estimates of Drug-Related Emergency Department Visits, Table 3 – which he didn’t. It shows that those ages 12 to 17 accounted for 51,757 (6 percent) of the 816,696 emergency cases for illegal drug abuse. Meanwhile, adults ages 35-54 suffered per-capita drug emergency rates double those of adolescents, including nine times higher for heroin and cocaine.

Steinberg says I lied about binge drinking. Check the 2005 National Household Survey, Table 2.16A – which he didn’t. It found 14.5 million “binge drinkers” ages 12 to 24 (most over age 20), versus 11.7 million ages 35 to 44, and 8.8 million ages 45 to 54.

Steinberg says I make up crime statistics. Check FBI arrest figures (1975 Uniform Crime Reports, Table 36, and 2005 reports, Table 38), adjusted for populations – which he didn’t. They show skyrocketing crime rates among middle-agers and falling rates for teenagers and young adults.

Every age harbors risks: motor vehicles, homicide, and street crime for teens and young adults; drug/alcohol overdose, obesity and white-collar crime in middle age; suicides and accidents in senior years. Every age’s risks could be blamed on age-based brain deficiency, including the measurable deteriorations in memory, learning, and IQ after age 40. But just as eminent scientists once decreed that “more reckless behavior” by nonwhites proved them biologically inferior to whites, Steinberg and fellow “teenage-brain” detractors conveniently discover biological faults only in powerless populations.

Pronouncing a group innately flawed is very serious, requiring rigorous demonstration of causal biological effect and elimination of reasonable alternative explanations for behaviors. Modern “teen brain” detractors violate both fundamental research ethics wholesale.

First, they don’t show cause. Responsible brain scientists, including UCLA’s Daniel Siegel, Harvard’s Kurt Fischer, and Tufts University’s Richard Lerner, agree brain research is (in Lerner’s words) “in its infancy” and “it’s way too premature to make those specific links” between biology and behavior. Of course, cautious, responsible scientists don’t score the media and interest-group acclaim that impulsive hyperbolists like Steinberg do.

Second, Steinberg fails to control for elementary socioeconomic variables. For example, American teenagers and young adults are twice as likely to live in poverty as are middle-agers. Socioeconomic status is crucial. Traffic deaths per mile driven, felony arrest rates and gun homicide rates are five, seven, and 21 times higher, respectively, among California’s poorest youth than its richer ones. Middle-agers subjected to equivalent levels of poverty show traffic, murder and arrest risks similar to those of teens.

That is, “teen brain” detractors like Steinberg mistake “poverty risk” for “adolescent risk.” Steinberg incorporates social conditions only when they help him excuse adults’ more frequent risk behaviors.

Steinberg and some colleagues – including the National Institutes of Mental Health’s Jay Giedd and Harvard’s Deborah Yurgelun Todd – label people under age 25 as innately incompetent to exercise such fundamental rights as voting and driving. Their recklessness boosts America’s destructive juvenilization of competent young people that produces the most risk-taking teens and grownups in the Western world.

Before he succumbed to institutional peer pressure and crowd-pleasing rhetoric, Steinberg was an excellent scholar. Now he dismisses the worst proven threats to teenagers – poverty, abuse within families and their parents’ erupting drug and crime epidemics – while resurrecting 19th century myths that riskiness is just a biohazard of “teenage brains.”