Innocence Lost and Found

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The amazing staff at MomTrends, one of the hottest mommy blogs on the Internet, was disturbed by a story on the sexual practices of teenagers that went viral last week.  They sensed that the information the article presented might not be factual, and they asked me to look into it.  They were right.  MomTrends published my rebuttal here:

Innocence Found:  Why Teenage Girls Are Safer Sexually than You were at Their Age

Here are some of the sources of the statistics I cite in the piece:

Trends in the Sexual Behavior of Teens

Trends in Alcohol Use among Teens

Trends in Birth Rates for Teens

Thanks for looking out for parents, MomTrends.

When Bad Headlines Happen to Good Programs

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The headline of the press release from Glasgow announces, “Researchers call for withdrawal of investment in Triple P parenting programme.” For those of you who are unaware, Triple P is one of the most studied parenting programs in the history of parenting programs.  Hundreds of peer-reviewed evaluations of Triple P have been published. The overwhelming conclusion is that Triple P improves child behaviors and parent well-being.

So what happened in Glasgow?

I have read the whole report, not just the press release, and I still do not know.  Moreover, I am not sure the authors of the report know either.

Consider this passage:

“Both the quantitative and qualitative data clearly show that parents who completed interventions were highly satisfied with those interventions, whilst negative comments in the qualitative data referred to difficulties with other parents’ behaviour in the group and with practical issues such as the venue. Analysis of pre- and post-intervention data showed improvements in almost all areas, though this was substantially weaker when non-completers (who were assumed not to have improved) were added into the analysis. Completion rates were frequently low and no other post-intervention data are available for parents who did not participate/complete the intervention.”

By the numbers, the Triple P program appears successful, but the report’s authors are very concerned, and rightly so, with the fact that few parents completed the program in its entirety and that little is known about those who either fail to complete the program or who do not participate at all. While they are confident in their findings, the authors also are worried about other recent studies of Triple P that have failed to show significant impacts.

Is all of this enough to warrant the headline that public spending on Triple P should cease?  Again, I do not know…and neither do the authors.

Here is their recommendation:

“The lack of change in social and emotional functioning among the child population of Glasgow, together with the low completion rates for Triple P interventions, selective benefit for more privileged families and recent published evidence of overall lack of efficacy leads us to recommend that Glasgow should not commit to further investment in Triple P training or materials except within the context of independently conducted randomised trials of specific interventions.”

In other words, the authors cannot recommend funding Triple P moving forward unless more research is funded as well.

How convenient.

Overall, the report comes across as a bad variation of a joke attributed to Groucho Marx and famously retold by Woody Allen. The food at this restaurant may be awful or the portions may be small.  Either way, these researchers will let you buy them another meal.

What Say You, Stepping Stone?

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Five minutes ago, I received a push poll from Stepping Stone about children’s media. I tried to explain that I know way too much about this issue to be unbiased in my responses, but the interviewer, working from computer assisted interview software, insisted that I continue.

I was read three questions and asked for a yes or no response to each. To the best of my recollection (the questions came quickly and I admittedly blew a gasket shortly after the first question, so my recall is compromised), these are the questions I was asked and the answers I wish I could have provided.

Question 1: Do you agree that most of the movies and television today could be potentially harmful to children?

All media – movies, television, books, songs, paintings, etc. – are open for interpretation. Children, because of their lack of experience in the world, need an adult to help them interpret media. Without an adult, a preschool child may infer from an episode of Sesame Street that an urban back alley is a great place to explore on one’s own and make friends. With an adult, a preschool child may infer from an episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation that science is fun.

Question 2: According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, children spend up to 10 hours a day online, with smartphones and other media. Do you agree that this should be regulated?

First all, this is a misrepresentation of Kaiser Family Foundation’s Generation M2 report. The actual finding is that children (ages 8 to 18) spend 10 hours a day across all media, 4 ½ hours watching television (which is rated for content) and 2 ½ listening to music (which also is regulated). Much of the remaining time is multitasking (e.g., texting while watching television, listening to music while browsing the Internet, etc.).

Question 3 (the question I have the poorest recollection of because I was asking questions of the interviewer as she asked it): Do you support a rating system for websites?

All of the media that children use in a day, with one exception, already can be filtered for content using tools built into the devices that access them. I can set my television’s V-chip to block mature content. I can specify which websites my browser is allowed to access. I can program my iPod to filter songs with explicit lyrics. The only media that is not explicitly rated or cannot be filter by its delivery system is…get this…the book.

Now, I knew this was a push poll, meaning that is was designed to “push” an agenda. I knew that the interviewer was less interested in my responses than in selling me something. I had gleaned that from the questions long before the interviewer revealed the treachery. That being said, this kind of fear mongering upsets me (Are fish and fear the only things that can be “mongered”? Is it an “f” thing?).

I tried to find Stepping Stone Media online to voice my concerns directly, but there are too many “Stepping Stone” companies to figure out which one is responsible. Stepping Stone, if you are reading this and have the stones (get it?), please write me back. I would love your reaction.

Dealing with Back-To-School Anxiety

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This past Monday I was asked to be on Channel 12, Phoenix’s NBC affiliate, to discuss techniques for dealing with the back-to-school anxiety children and parents face. Lin Sue Cooney had great questions for me, so I thought I would share my prepared responses with you.

As a parents, we want to help dispel our children’s fears.  What are some of the ways to help lessen the anxiety of back to school?

It can be helpful to you let your children know that it is natural to be anxious about starting a new school year, and share your own stories about being afraid.  Remember, fear is sometimes about the unknown.  You can help your child prepare for the unknown by practicing situations they might face.  Role play making friends or meeting a new teacher.

As parents, we also have fears. Will our children face bullying? Are they encountering things like sexting? How can we work through that ourselves without imprinting those fears on our kids?

Start by learning the schools’ policies about bullying and the use of digital devices.  If the school does not have a policy or if the policy does not conform to best practices, demand new policies or find a different school.

Again, fear is about the unknown.  The urban legends about bullying and sexting abound, but getting the facts can be pretty comforting.  Information from the CDC shows that school violence is declining and has been for some time.  Furthermore, a study from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project indicates that it is adults who are sexting, not kids.

In the Old Navy video about back-to-school anxieties there’s a monster called “Womp Womp” that acts like that little voice inside our heads telling us we’re not good enough, smart enough, people won’t like us. How to we teach ourselves and our children to turn the volume on that voice down?

Years of therapy?  A good Bordeaux?

We all struggle with insecurities.  One technique is to remember a time and a place where we felt competent, secure, and loved, and then use the recollection of that feeling as fuel to take on a new challenge.  Objects can help us get in touch with these feelings.  It’s why adults keep trophies or heirlooms, and children keep stuffed toys and security blankets.  Regardless, the key is allowing ourselves to remember, experience, and believe the feeling of those moments from our past.


The Banjo is Mightier than the Gun

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As a person who studies and writes about school and institutional violence, I constantly encounter arguments about the Second Amendment. A popular argument in favor of the broadest interpretation of the Second Amendment (i.e., the interpretation that the Second Amendment protects citizens from any limitations on the types or number of firearms they own) is that we need firearms to stop our governments from impeding on our liberties. From NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action:

“The purpose of the Second Amendment was to assure that Americans would always possess arms of sufficient type and quantity that, at a last resort, if all other attempts to protect their rights from a tyrannical government failed — as had been the case in dealing with the king of England in the 1770s — they would be able to protect themselves.”

If you are familiar with my work, you know that I am in enamored with evidence: observable or measureable indications of the truth of a proposition. My last post lead to a discussion about whether, in the history of the U.S., the Second Amendment has, in fact, protected our freedoms from our governments.

The Federal government and state and local governments routinely take steps that expand or limit liberties. In the 1940s and 1950s, the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) of the United States House of Representative successfully limited the free speech of many of the American artists that it subpoenaed.

Now, to my point and how all of this relates to kids.

Pete Seeger died last week. Few musicians have contributed more to the children’s music tome than Seeger did.

In 1955, Seeger was called before the HUAC and questioned about the specific people who attended or sponsored his concerts. Seeger replied:

“I am not going to answer any questions as to my association, my philosophical or religious beliefs or my political beliefs, or how I voted in any election, or any of these private affairs. I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this.”

But the questioning continued. The HUAC was looking to implicate Seeger as un-American based on the individuals and groups that Seeger entertained. Seeger offered the following:

“I am proud that I have sung for Americans of every political persuasion, and I have never refused to sing for anybody because I disagreed with their political opinion, and I am proud of the fact that my songs seem to cut across and find perhaps a unifying thing, basic humanity, and that is why I would love to be able to tell you about these songs, because I feel that you would agree with me more, sir.”

Over the course of the questioning, Seeger routinely volunteered to tell the HUAC about the content his songs. He even volunteered to sing. The HUAC, however, refused. The committee was more interested incriminating Seeger by association than they were in the actual message of his music.

Of “I Had a Hammer” in particular, the HUAC was interested in whether he premiered it at a testimonial dinner for the defendants of a Smith Act trial. Again, Seeger said that he would discuss the song but not where or to whom he had sung it. The HUAC declined the offer.

“I am sorry you are not interested in the song,” Seeger replied. “It is a good song.”

A good song indeed.

When Peter, Paul and Mary covered “If I Had a Hammer” less than a decade after the HUAC hearing, it became a Top 10 hit, and the HUAC was in decline.

From treasonous to Top 10 in ten years.

While we continue to debate the efficacy of firearms in protecting our freedoms from our governments, let us take a moment and reflect on Seeger’s life and remind ourselves and our children that the deadliest weapon against tyranny just may be a banjo.

Protecting Kids from the Second Amendment

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In 2009, 7,391 children and youth were hospitalized for firearm-related injuries.  Death occurred in just over 6% of the cases.  This is from a new study released today by Pediatrics, the journal with which I continue to have a dysfunctional relationship.  For example, Pediatrics says that it is important that I know this number, but when I read the article, I did not know why.  I needed context.

Is it a big number? Is it going up?  Is it going down?  In 2009, there were over 70 million children in the U.S.  As a percentage of that, how many firearm injuries would seem reasonable?

For kicks, I polled a nonrandom sample of a dozen of my (arguably) well-informed friends.  How many children and youth did they believe were hospitalized for firearm-related injuries in a given year?  Their responses ranged from several hundred injuries a year (these guesses came from “friends” who obviously are unfamiliar with my writings on the declining juvenile murder rate, which was at an 18-year low of 1,376 children and youth murdered in 2011) to 45,000.  So I was not alone in needing context.

Here is the context.

Federal law makes it illegal to sell firearms to individuals under the age of 21.  Federal law also makes it illegal for individuals under the age of 18 to possess a handgun. Most states set additional limitations on the possession of firearms by children and youth.

Consequently, 7,391 children and youth hospitalized for firearm-related injuries represents a failure of adults.   Adults bought the guns, owned the guns, and, in some cases, pulled the triggers on the guns that sent these kids to the hospital (in 2011, 903 of the 1,306 juvenile murder victims were killed by adults). Without adults to facilitate, there would be no firearm-related injuries (or deaths) to children and youth.

This may or may not be about the Second Amendment, but it most certainly is about the fact that kids need adults. Kids need adults to protect them from other kids, from adults, and from firearms.

Shooting Kids and Shooting Kids

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This past Wednesday, a Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy shot and killed 13-year-old Andy Lopez when Lopez allegedly pointed an assault rifle at him. Only it was not an assault rifle. It was a toy designed to look like an assault rifle.

ABC News quotes one angry neighbor, Abrey Martin, as saying, “I’m sure you can tell he’s a 13-year-old boy. He’s not some maniac.”

Indeed, where would a law enforcement official get the idea that a 13-year-old child could be a lunatic on a shooting spree with an honest-to-goodness firearm?

Maybe he heard the story of the 12-year-old boy who shot and killed a beloved teacher and military veteran and wounded two students in his Nevada middle school on Monday, just two days prior.

Maybe he heard the story of the 11-year-old student in Washington who was arrested earlier that Wednesday for bringing a handgun, 400 rounds of ammunition and multiple knives to school.

Martin was not the only community member incredulous that the sheriff actually believed that this child posed a real threat. Other news sources report similar comments from other neighbors.

Ironically, the sheriff in Sonoma County is, by definition, the type of well-trained, well-armed officer that many citizens and lawmakers are trying to place in schools to make campuses safe from students with guns.

Families often file lawsuits after a tragedy like this one. If the Lopez family chooses this path, I would like to ask them to consider foregoing the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department in favor of suing the truly culpable: the parents of the all-too-numerous young murderers, those parents who did not prevent their children from accessing their families’ firearms.

I tend to sidestep Second Amendment arguments. However, I suspect that parents controlling the firearms they own and keeping them out of the hands of their children is a version of gun control we all can support. With it, law enforcement officials can assume that a gun in a child’s hand is a toy. Without it, we have shooting kids and shooting kids.

I Don’t Like Mondays

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On Monday, October 21, 2013, a shooting occurred at a middle school near Reno, Nevada. There are few details at this point, but sources agree that a 12-year-old boy returned from fall break with his parents’ handgun. He shot and killed a math teacher, wounded two other students, and then took his own life.

Investigators are scrambling for clues about why this tragedy occurred. In the end, I suspect that the picture painted will be an all-to-familiar one: interpersonal turmoil, increased isolation, and easy access to a firearm.

While searches for answers and solutions continue and at the risk of sounding like a broken record, I feel the need to point out the following:

I think it also is important to point out that school shootings in the U.S., like the one yesterday in Nevada and Columbine in 1999, are not new. CNN has compiled a partial list of them here, complete with infamous cases from the 1960s and 1970s.

The list also includes the case of 16-year-old Brenda Spencer, who, in 1979, opened fire on the school across from her house, killing two adults and injuring eight students. When asked why she did it, Spencer allegedly replied, “Because I don’t like Mondays.”


Homemade Blowguns vs. Amish Craftsmanship

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Yesterday, Pediatrics – once my cure for poorly-researched and overly-hyped stories about dangers facing kids, but increasingly my source of such material – published an article warning parents about children inhaling darts from homemade blowguns. According to the article, teens use the World Wide Web to learn how to make blowguns out of PVC pipe or other construction material that they presumably find lying around. Then some of these adolescent MacGyvers accidentally inhale their artisanal nail or pushpin darts, which then get lodged in their airways (apparently that darned Internet does not adequately stress the “blow” in “blowgun”).

It would be too easy for me to point out that the documented number of kids actually being injured inhaling homemade blowgun darts is statistically indistinguishable from zero.

It also would be too easy for me to hypothesize the overlap between the set of parents who knowing allow their children to make blowguns and the set of parents who heed the warnings of Pediatrics as being infinitesimally small (Figure 1).

Slide1Therefore, I have decided to be incredibly sarcastic (also easy, but much more fun) and call for a boycott on nails, pushpins, needles and other sharp, straight fasteners.

The alternative? Glue.

Whoops. Other poorly cited articles already are incorrectly hyping the prevalence of kids sniffing glue.

Second alternative? Staples.

Nope. Cutters apparently use staples, according to Disney. Damn.

Third alternative? Old-fashioned dovetail joints.

So far I have been unable to locate a single article warning parents about the dangers of their children dabbling in genuine Amish craftsmanship, but the next issue of Pediatrics is only a month away.

As always, if you suspect that a child in your life is making blowguns, please warn them of the dangers. Otherwise, keep calm, know that such incidents are extremely rare, and focus on being physically and emotionally present to your kids.

Challenging the Cinnamon Challenge

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In my book, The 5 Simple Truths of Raising Kids, I advocate for challenging assertions about our kids, especially when the assertions come from popular media and employ copious amounts of hyperbole. In an effort to practice what I preach, I was skeptical of the recent headlines in the The Atlantic and The New York Times that warned of the deadliness of the Cinnamon Challenge game. I assumed they were over-hyping something tragic that randomly happened somewhere to some unfortunate kid.

I was wrong.

The Atlantic and The New York Times were reporting on a study from Pediatrics…my Pediatrics. Well, it does not actually belong to me, but those of you who are familiar with my work with know that I love Pediatrics and rely on its well-vetted, high quality articles. If it is in Pediatrics, I thought, then there must be truth to it.

I was wrong…again.

In their article, titled, “Ingesting and Aspirating Dry Cinnamon by Children and Adolescents: The “Cinnamon Challenge,” authors Amelia Grant-Alfieri, Judy Schaechter, Steven E. Lipshultz write that “the Cinnamon Challenge has led to dozens of calls to poison centers, emergency department visits, and even hospitalizations for adolescents requiring ventilator support for collapsed lungs.”

The Cinnamon Challenge involves attempting to swallow a tablespoon of cinnamon powder, without drinking water, in under 60 seconds. It seems impossible, it definitely is unpleasant, and thousands of children and adults have tried it, often on video that ends up on YouTube.

If the Cinnamon Challenge is sending kids to the hospital, then people, like you, who care about kids need to know about it.

The information included a citation, as I would expect from articles in Pediatrics.  I accessed the citation to uncover the actual numbers of kids who are being hospitalized. The Atlantic and The New York Times weren’t over-hyping something tragic that randomly happened somewhere to some unfortunate kid, Pediatrics was. The article’s assertion that the Cinnamon Challenge has caused “hospitalizations for adolescents requiring ventilator support for collapsed lungs” was based on a local television news story from Akron, Ohio, about a young girl in Ypsilanti, Michigan, who, by her own account, started laughing during her attempt at the Cinnamon Challenge and accidentally inhaled the powder into her lungs.

Not “adolescents” with an “s,” but “adolescent.” Singular.  According to the Pediatrics article, and every article I have been able to access, the Cinnamon Challenge has caused one collapsed lung in one kid.  One.

Shame on you, Pediatrics.

Is there a danger to inhaling cinnamon or any cellulose powder into one’s lungs? Absolutely. Does the Cinnamon Challenge increase the likelihood of this happening? Logic would suggest that it does. It also seems evident that the number of people attempting the Cinnamon Challenge is increasing. In 2011, American Association of Poison Control Centers (AAPCC) received 51 calls related to the Cinnamon Challenge. In 2012, that number had jumped to 222. Of those calls to the AAPCC, 17% required unspecified medical attention. There seems to be little data on what happens in those cases that require medical attention. The authors of the Pediatrics article report on follow-up data from 22 Cinnamon Challenge related calls to the Florida Poison Information Center. In those follow-ups, all symptoms resolved within 2½ hours.

If you suspect that the kids in your life are interested in taking the Cinnamon Challenge, then by all means warn them of the dangers. If you are wondering about how much time and effort to devote to worrying about the Cinnamon Challenge, consider this:  between 2007 and 2011, the number of hospital room visits by 12 to 17 year-olds that were related to energy drinks rose from 1,145 to 1,499. So what do we have to fear? Red Bull or cinnamon or fear itself?