Opinion

Lies, Damn Lies, and ‘Youth Risk’ Surveys

Scary survey finding: 300,000 (says the Hamilton Fish National Institute) to 350,000 (says the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health) youths take guns to school every month.  Real-life outcome: Of America’s 2,500 monthly gunshot deaths, only one or two occur in or around a school. Logical action: Take guns away from grownups and give them to kids to take to school.

Scary survey finding: 10 million high schoolers drink alcohol every month, including 5 million who get drunk (Monitoring the Future). Real-life outcome: Of America’s 30,000 monthly deaths and injuries from drunk driving  and over-drinking, just 3 percent involve high schoolers. Logical action: Let youths drink all they want, but make grownups abstain.

Behavior-risk surveys are out of control. If such surveys are valid, every American teenager should be dead five times over. Sure, all teens are “at risk” on paper – if “risk” is wildly exaggerated, symptoms are confused with causes, and context and individuality are eliminated. Dubious surveys are misused to provoke panicky, sweeping repressions that trample teens’ rights to privacy, free time, peer interaction and personal consideration.

An egregious example is the 2000 Add Health report, whose main finding is that unsupervised time with peers predicts adolescent risk more than do income, race, or family structure. Every teenager, rich and poor, “is at risk,” the press cited lead author, Dr. Robert Blum,  as saying.

Now, if one’s “risk survey” finds poverty largely irrelevant, some head-scratching should ensue. In the real world, poorer youth (regardless of race) are more at risk from guns, violence, teen pregnancy, HIV, crime, school failure, smoking and most other ills than are better-off youths. In Dr. Blum’s own state, Minnesota, America’s poorest African-American and near-richest white teenagers dwell. Compared to white youths in Minnesota, black youths are 10 times more likely to have babies, eight times more likely to die violently, 12 times more likely to die by guns, and 40 times more likely to be murdered. Would Add Health authors seriously contend the biggest reason for these staggering differences is that black kids have too much free time?

After cautioning against assuming correlation equals causation, Dr. Blum does just that. He recommends that parents and programs closely supervise and structure teens’ free time and friendships – a classic case of American scientists converting symptoms into causes to produce a one- size-fits-all remedy that is unwarranted, impractical and potentially harmful.

In real families and communities, trends in, and levels of, teenage behavior outcomes (such as violent death, crime, birth, HIV, drunken driving, smoking, etc.) are powerfully correlated with corresponding adult outcomes, and most are connected to poverty. Further, individual teenage risks are strongly predicted by those of family adults (as Add Health confirms). So, if alcoholic dad is in prison for raping the babysitter and mom is cooking methamphetamine with her psychotic boyfriend, it’s no surprise that junior hangs out more with peers than at home. Lest anyone think this scenario outlandish, FBI reports show 1.4 million parent-age (30-50) adults arrested for violent, property and drug felonies in 1999, a tripling in 25 years.

Millions of children grow up in poverty and millions more live in households where adults are violent, addicted and disarrayed – and then when a youth reacts by “acting out,” researchers declare adolescent behavior is the problem requiring remediation and suppression. Parents are excused for being “overworked” and “preoccupied,” politicians are excused for failing to address America’s disgraceful youth poverty epidemic, and the decades-old homily that parents should just watch kids is duly recycled.

Unless validated by reliable outcome measures, behavior surveys are loose cannons, easily biased and exaggeration prone. They have little value except to generate media sensation and public fear, which many interests incite further through overdrawn questions and inflamed press commentary. The vast majority of teens don’t need their growing up pathologized and regimented; they need adults in families and major institutions to behave more responsibly themselves.

Justice Policy Institute senior researcher Mike Males’ new book, “Kids and Guns: How Politicians, Experts, and the Press Fabricate Fear of Youth,” is posted at www.commoncouragepress.com, E-mail: mmales@earthlink.com.

Anyone think this scenario outlandish, FBI reports show 1.4 million parent-age adults (30 to 54) arrested for violent, property, and drug felonies in 1999, a figure that has tripled over the past 25 years.

Millions of children grow up in poverty and millions more live in households where adults are violent, addicted, and disarrayed. Then, when a youth reacts by “acting out,” researchers say adolescent behavior is the problem that requires remediation and suppression. Parents are excused for being “overworked” and “preoccupied,” politicians are excused for failing to address

America’s disgraceful youth poverty epidemic, and the decades-old homily that parents should just watch kids better is recycled.

Unless validated by reliable outcome measures, behavior surveys are loose cannons, easily biased and prone to exaggeration. They have little value except to generate media sensation and public fear. The vast majority of teens don=t need their growing up to be pathologized and regimented; they need adults in families and major institutions to behave more responsibly themselves.

Justice Policy Institute senior researcher Mike Males’ new book, “Kids and Guns: How Politicians, Experts, and the Press Fabricate Fear of Youth,” is posted at www.commoncouragepress.com.  Contact: mmales@earthlink.net.

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