Youth Reseach Debate

Response to Youth Research: Duh!

By Mark Redmond

The woman who heads our education center here at Spectrum Youth and Family Services swears she will some day write a book called “Duh!” It will be composed of conclusions reached by experts and institutes of higher learning, usually after expansive and expensive studies done over several years, to which any reasonably intelligent person should respond, “Duh!” Or, “Isn’t this common sense?” Or, “Why did this even need to be studied?”

The “Duh!” moments are not reserved for the world of academia. I experience them right in our own little universe of youth services. Here are some of my recent favorites:

The July issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry reveals the startling results of a three-year survey by The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Children with a history of family depression are more likely to develop depression in response to family conflict than are children without such histories. Researchers found considerable evidence of interaction between depression and family environment.


Here’s another: The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development gave the Rand Corp. $2.3 million to study the influence of sexual media content on youth, including the link between music with degrading sexual lyrics and the initiation of sexual activities among adolescents. The stupefying results: “Researchers found that adolescents who listened to a lot of music containing objectifying and limiting characterizations of sexuality progressed more quickly in their sexual behavior than did adolescents who listened to less of this kind of music. The more time adolescents spend listening to music with sexually degrading lyrics, the more likely they are to initiate intercourse.”


Here’s one reported in the British Medical Journal, concerning work done by researchers at the University of the West Indies in Kingston, Jamaica, over a 16-year period. (It’s some comfort to know that the United States isn’t alone in this craziness.) Children with stunted growth who get social stimulation and are involved in organized play sessions are less likely to suffer from depression and anxiety as teenagers. They also develop higher self-esteem.


Okay, time to get serious. As much as I convulse in laughter when I read these reports, it is actually quite sad that there is money out there to fund things like this, while those of us on the front lines – who house, educate, train and counsel youth living in desperate conditions – watch our funding decrease or disappear.

We see this at Spectrum, where I serve as executive director. More than 40 funding streams feed our $4 million budget, and in fiscal 2007 a good 25 percent of them will be level-funded, while a few will end completely. Each day we hold our breath over certain grants, even though we have received them for years and have gotten excellent reviews. That’s because we know that in this fiscal climate, it is a toss-up as to who will be funded.

And recently, the New England Network for Child, Youth and Family Services e-mailed me this bulletin from the Child Welfare League of America: “Federal assistance for children placed in foster care has declined significantly in the past 10 years as outdated eligibility standards have reduced the amount of money available for distribution by the states.” According to CWLA, as many as 50,000 otherwise eligible children haven’t received federal support.

So I have to confess that I just don’t get it. There seems to be money to fund multi-year studies that produce self-evident results, but there isn’t nearly enough to fund the actual work of helping children, families and adolescents. Can someone explain this to me?


Youth Research: You Just Don’t Un-duh-stand

By Melanie Wilson

Mark Redmond recently approached me with an opinion that ruined my day.

I do original research, and I summarize and synthesize other people’s research, for youth service professionals. I love the process of gathering information, analyzing it and shaping it into a coherent package so that ultimately, youth workers can do their jobs better.

Mark, who runs an agency for homeless and troubled youth, isn’t so enthusiastic. Concerning the bulk of research findings I routinely forward to him and others, he has one word: Duh.

He ticked through some findings that I reported in a recent bulletin – all of it carefully vetted (I thought) for relevance to the daily work of youth workers and administrators. The research was pretty typical fare: some of it commonsensical, most of it backing up what anyone paying attention would have suspected.

One piece of research, for instance, confirmed that teenagers who listen to songs with hypersexual, misogynistic lyrics tend to initiate sex more quickly than they otherwise would. “Duh,” Mark said. Another piece reported that family conflict triggers depression more easily in teenagers who are already predisposed to depression. “Duh,” he said again.

I conceded that all studies are incremental, narrowly defined, niche projects. They take the last similar study and go one small step further. Duplicative? Somewhat. Boring? To many folks, sure.

But that’s how bodies of complete knowledge are built. It’s slow and tedious. If you stick with it, you’ll eventually know more than you used to, and be better able to justify your programs.

If we believe in evidence-based practice as much as we claim, we should be willing to embrace research rather than fight it.
But what does it look like to use research in a practical way?

Let’s look at the study about sexually degrading song lyrics. A lot of people are uncomfortable with such lyrics, and rightfully so. But do they actually have a harmful effect, harmful enough to ban such music from your youth program?

If you had a study that demonstrated that such lyrics have a negative impact on the sexual behavior of youth, you’d have an evidence-based reason for rejecting the music.

And consider that youth-serving programs routinely see adolescent boys who exhibit inappropriate attitudes or behavior toward girls and women. Could the music they listen to be a predictor, a toxic influence or a risk factor? It’s one more thing to think about and discuss with colleagues and youths themselves.

Which songs young people listen to may seem like a small issue, not terribly consequential in the scheme of things. But the consequences of even self-evident research results can be high.

Just visit the government website ExpectMore.gov. There, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) reveals in nothing-concealed, plainspoken format, which government-funded programs are judged to be performing well and which are not. Many youth programs have been put in the “not performing” category, rated as “effectiveness not demonstrated,” because OMB says they can’t prove that they work.

What happens to these programs? Some get slated for cuts, while others are pressured to produce the statistics that can show they deserve government support.

Every research study is designed to demonstrate the relationship between one thing and another. In the social sciences, it’s about action and consequences: If you do a particular thing, will another thing reliably happen? That simple question is applied to every aspect of our field, at every level, every day.

Is research important to our field? To borrow a word from my colleague: “Duh.” It obviously is, as a means to improve practice and to demonstrate effectiveness.

Mark has made me think, though. Do most direct-service youth workers share his views about the irrelevance of research? It’s a depressing thought for someone like me.

I hate to say it, but maybe that’s a research project.


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