The fathers behind teen births (or, statistical memes and motivated blind trust)

When makes people trust statistical memes? I don’t know of any research on this, but it looks like the recipe includes a combination of scientific-sounding specificity, good graphics, a source that looks credible, and – of course – a number that supports what people already believe (and want their Facebook friends to believe, too).

If that’s the problem, and assuming the market can’t figure out how to make journalism work, I have no solution except seizing the Internet and putting it under control of the Minister of Sociology, or, barring that, encouraging social scientists to get engaged, help reporters, and make all their good work available publicly, free, and fast.

Today’s cringe:

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The blogger TeenMomNYC takes credit for creating this, and the Facebook version has been shared tens of thousands of times. Its popularity led to this story from Attn: “The Truth About Teenage ‘Baby Mamas’ is Quite Revealing.” (If anyone did want to study this issue, this is a neat case study, because she posted 8 “did you know” graphics on Facebook at the same time, and none of the others took off at all – why?)

I don’t know anything about TeenMomNYC, but I share her desire to stop stigmatizing and shaming young mothers. I wish her work were not necessary, but I applaud the effort. That said, I don’t necessarily think shaming young fathers (even if they’re not quite as young) is a solution to that, but that’s not the point. My point is, what is this statistic?

According to the footnote (thanks!), it comes from this 1995 National Academies report, and (except for changing “29” to “29.7”) it represents it accurately. From p. 205:

These data highlight an additional component of the sexual abuse picture— the evidence that an appreciable portion of the sexual relationships and resulting pregnancies of young adolescent girls are with older males, not peers. For example, using 1988 data from the NSFG and The Alan Guttmacher Institute, Glei (1994) has estimated that among girls who were mothers by the age of 15, 39 percent of the fathers were ages 20–29; for girls who had given birth to a child by age 17, the comparable figure was 53 percent. Although there are no data to measure what portion of such relationships include sexual coercion or violence, the significant age difference suggests an unequal power balance between the parties, which in turn could set the stage for less than voluntary sexual activity. As was recently said at a public meeting on teen pregnancy, “can you really call an unsupervised outing between a 13-year-old girl and a 24-year-old man a ‘date’?”

This is an important point, and was good information in 1995, when it cited a 1994 analysis of 1988 data, which asked women ages 15-44 a retrospective question. In other words, this refers to births that took place as early as 1958, or between 28 and 58 years ago. That is historical, and really shouldn’t be used like this today, given how much has changed regarding teen births.

The analysis is of the 1988 National Survey of Family Growth, a survey that was repeated as recently as 2011-2013. Someone who knows how to use NSFG should figure out the current state of the age gap between young mothers and fathers and let TeenMomNYC know.

Even if I didn’t know the true, current statistic, this would give me pause. Births to women before age 15 are extremely rare. The American Community Survey, which asks millions of women whether they have had a birth in the previous year, does not even ask the question of women younger than 15. The ACS reports there were 179,000 births in the previous year among women who were under 20 when interviewed, of which only 6,500 were to women age 15 at the interview. So that’s 3.7% of teen births, and 3 out of every thousand 15-year-old women. In 1958 this was much more common, and the social environment was much different.

Another issue is the age range of the fathers, 20-29, which is very wide when dealing with such young mothers. Look at the next phrase from the 1995 report: “girls who had given birth to a child by age 17, the comparable figure was 53 percent.” Realize that the great majority of girls who had a birth “by age 17” were 17 when they did, and the great majority of those men were probably close to 20. I’m not very positive about 20-year-old men having children with 17-year-old women, but it’s pretty different from 29-versus-13.

I can’t find the original source for this, but this report from the Resource Center for Adolescent Pregnancy Protection attributes this table to the California Center for Health Statistics in 2002, which shows that the father was age 20 or older  for 23% of women who had a birth before age 15. And of those, 93% were 20-24 (rather than 25+).

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Anyway, this is a good case of a well-intentioned but under-resourced effort to sway people with true information, picked up by click-bait media and repeated because people think it will help them win arguments, not because they have any real reason to believe it’s true (or not true).

So I really hope someone with the resources, skills, and training to answer this question will produce the real numbers regarding father’s age for teen births, and post them, with accompanying non-technical language, along with their code, on the Open Science Framework (or other open-access repository).

Fixing the media and its economy is a tall order, but academics can do better if we put our energy into this work, reward it, and restructure our own system so that good information gets out better, faster and more reliably.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “The fathers behind teen births (or, statistical memes and motivated blind trust)

  1. Pingback: Explain to me again how marriage is the problem here | Family Inequality

  2. If you want to make it sound even more shocking, change “men between the ages of 20 and 29” to “men between the age of 20 and 39.”

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