Youth Facts vs. Writer’s Fiction

In his writings for Youth Today and other media outlets, Mike Males has taken on a laudable mission: combating erroneous stereotypes of youth that make them seem more troubled than they are. But he undercuts that mission by basing his arguments on fiction rather than fact.

And I don’t mean just occasionally. He makes a habit of misusing science and misleading readers.

Consider his op-ed that ran in The New York Times on Sept. 17, titled "This Is Your Father’s Brain on Drugs." Echoing what he has written in Youth Today, Males argued that adolescent risk-taking is overstated; that reports of neurobiological research have led scientists to call for stripping young people of such rights as voting and driving; that claims about adolescent brain development are based on "shaky science"; and that it is adolescents’ middle-aged parents, not youth, who engage in the most reckless behavior.

Yes, adults often behave recklessly. But adolescents, on average, engage in more reckless behavior than do individuals of other ages – an observation that is borne out by actuarial data, crime statistics and solid social science.

Males massages statistics to bolster his argument, conveniently ignoring data that run contrary to his polemic. One trick he is especially fond of is to compare raw numbers without adjusting for differences in the size of the adolescent and adult populations. When proper adjustments are made for population sizes, a different picture emerges.

Take his insinuation that adults disproportionately account for emergency room visits for treatment of illegal drug use. Not so, once you adjust for the size of the adult and adolescent populations. In 2005 (his choice of years), 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.

Similarly, the rate of motor vehicle accidents, once you adjust for the size of various age cohorts, is 70 percent higher for 15- to 19-year-olds than for 35- to 54-year-olds. And while he is correct that the suicide rate is higher for adults than adolescents, what he doesn’t say is that the highest rate of suicide is among men aged 85 and older – hardly grown-up baby boomers. He also neglects to mention that the rate of attempted suicide is higher among teenagers than adults. Adolescents take more risks; adults are merely more competent, so to speak – consistent with the brain science.

Males also misleads by presenting data on changes in behavior over time without presenting data on adolescents. Arrest data are a case in point. Males describes a "200 percent leap per capita in major index felonies since 1975" among adults – a statistic that he has made up, as far as I can tell. Crime rates have risen among adults – by 11 percent since 1975, according to the FBI, a smaller increase than among teenagers – but adults have a long way to go before they catch up with kids. Compared with violent crime arrests of adults 25 and older in 2003, the arrest rate was nearly three times greater among 15- to 17-year-olds and nearly four times greater among 18- to 20-year-olds.

Sometimes Males just outright lies. His contention that there are more binge drinkers among middle-aged adults than adolescents and college students combined is sheer fantasy. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2004, 55 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds reported binge drinking, as opposed to 38 percent of 25- to 44-year-olds and 27 percent of 45- to 54-year-olds. That year, a higher percentage of high school seniors reported binge drinking in the prior two weeks than the percentage of 45- to 54-year-olds did in the prior 12 months.

It’s not just the statistics that Males gets wrong. He is also incorrect when he contends that those of us actually doing the science have called for scaling back youths’ rights as a result of brain research. I’ve never said any such thing (as he contends on his website); nor, to my knowledge, have any other reputable scientists.

As for his characterization of the brain science as "shaky," Males is entitled to his opinion. But his opinion – that of a sociologist with no training in neuroscience, to my knowledge – runs counter to that of the National Institutes of Health, the New York Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences, all of which have sponsored scientific meetings on the neural underpinnings of adolescent risk-taking. The published work on adolescent brain development that Males discredits has appeared in some of the most carefully peer-reviewed scholarly journals in the field.

What puzzles me is why Males thinks he is doing youth a favor by deflecting attention from problems that threaten their health and well-being: reckless driving, violent crime and substance abuse. Males might fashion himself as American youths’ Knight in Shining Armor, but he isn’t. Darth Vader is more like it.


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