Police your teens, or else?

According to the latest research, unsupervised hanging out is nothing but trouble. But trouble is, what trouble? Or, compared to what?

New research in the journal Criminology shows that teens with more unstructured hanging out time are more likely to do certain bad things. According to the press release:

Other research has shown that “unstructured socializing” by teens can lead to general delinquency, but this study is the first to suggest that it may also be associated with violent behavior.

Nothing but trouble.

As usual, I’m not an expert on this research. But I know enough to take issue with the conclusions. One co-author, Christopher Browning at Ohio State University, is quoted as saying, “Parents are better off assuming that more structure is better for their teens.” As the press release further explains:

Browning said the study took into account a wide variety of characteristics that are also associated with violence, such as prior levels of violence of each adolescent, their levels of impulsivity, and the violence levels of each child’s peers.

But that is the difference between a statistical study – not that there’s anything wrong with that – and the advice to parents it generates. In real life, for real parents, those other things — the prior levels of violence, the level of impulsivity, and the level of violence among his or her peers — may be exactly what matters. For an individual, you should take them “into account,” but you can’t “hold them constant.” If a given child scores low on all the other risk factors, even an increase in the proportional risk of bad behavior is no big deal — compared with the possible benefits of unstructured socializing.

The article includes in the measure of “violent” behavior things that are very rare or unlikely in the case of many teens (like “gang fights”). If there is little or no risk of gang fights, doubling that risk doesn’t much matter.

Of course, if a given child has many risk factors, adding to them can make a big difference and be a bad idea. And I’m not diminishing the importance of preventing teen violence. But there is a difference between a population pattern and the advice it compels.

One additional beef — compared to what? Is increasing the risk of violence the only thing that matters? What about having fun, learning to socialize competently and make independent decisions? The study did not have a measure of the harm caused by the violence (the most common item was  “hitting” someone outside the family). Again, not to promote violence, but a little violence now might be better than a lot of some other problem later.

Everyone likes research with important direct implications, but pushing it to the personal level can be misleading.

OK, is this horse dead yet?

4 thoughts on “Police your teens, or else?

  1. Why didn’t you write this last week so I could assign it to my statistics class? This says succinctly what I’ve been trying to get my head around for years! The constant search for causal explanations that are robust to controls leads us to grossly misunderstand how things in the social world really work.

    A quick question: what would you have thought if the authors had offered some predicted probabilities of violence under various “teen scenarios”? They could have said: if you have a good straight A kid with an optimistic outlook on the world and she hangs out with friends, don’t worry. However, if your son has been torturing cats in the basement and he hangs out with friends unsupervised, you might want to worry. Then again, this still doesn’t get around the fact that the one who is torturing cats is probably less likely to have the parent who worries.


  2. I think that would be a good way to handle presenting the results. Unfortunately, it is likely to produce evidence that the control variables have much bigger effects than the variable in question. That may especially be true in an analysis like this that includes measures of prior violence, which have to account for a good amount of the total variation. In fairness to the authors (why not?), they were very concerned in this analysis with the effects of neighborhood characteristics, such as trust and collective self-efficacy, and these appear to moderate the effects of unsupervised socializing. So that is potentially important. But I really think you need to keep a clear view of the scale of the effects before translating research like this into advice.


  3. I know that this has been a big deal in the medical/public health world. I can’t find specifically where, but there has been an effort to push authors to translate their findings into marginal effects rather than just presenting relative risks.


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