Congratulations for surviving another year of advice, scientific discoveries, recommendations, reports, risks and warnings in the "Parenting Media" -- the term I use for the loose collection of news organizations, parenting websites, pediatric health associations, snarky psychology blogs, and others throwing content at parents.
What’s the state of the Parenting Media at the start of this new year? A few brave souls dared to sift through the vast piles of information from the past 12 months and pick out the most notable news or discoveries of 2013. As it turns out these year-end inventories nicely mirror the media itself and provide another opportunity to reflect on its assorted cracks and flaws.
How to Ensure Parents Will Not Read This Serious Information
The editors at the New England Journal of Medicine’s Journal Watch Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine compiled the Top Stories of 2013. Just as you’d expect from a group of medical experts, they don’t try to explain any of the most important pediatric happenings to anybody, not in plain language or even jargon. This is simply a list of academic studies and professional guidelines. Some topics will be familiar to most of us (e.g., sports concussions, sleep apnea) but others, only to pediatric diehards (e.g., sublingual immunotherapy).
Parents, You Can Try This At Home
Another list surely with greater mass appeal comes from Gwen Dewar, a biological anthropologist who runs Parenting Science and blogs at Babycenter.com. Dewar, a friend of Momma Data, chose a mix of studies that impressed her and that also addressed timely or pressing topics in the media (hello, Tiger Moms!) in her Top Ten Parenting Science Stories of 2013. No surprise, she selected very different topics than did our group of pediatric specialists above and in contrast, she explains them and does so without boring, scaring, titillating or lecturing anyone. Many parents will be able to relate this research to their daily lives and if so inclined could apply some of this information in their own homes before bedtime tonight.
A Tasty Parenting Cocktail: Pop Culture with a Dash of Data
Highly readable but not nearly as wonky as the above, Parents.com brought us The Top 12 Parenting News Stories of 2013. Predictably, this infotainment features The Royal Baby, Angelina's double mastectomy, the Newtown Tragedy, and Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer. It also includes recent discoveries on breastfeeding, teen birth rates, IVF, and bisphenol a. I don’t know if these are the most crucial scientific findings but they address VIP topics sure to attract readers and optimize SEO. The reporting in the research sections was better than I expected, which is more than I can say for the next list.
Master Class in Science Writing Gone Wrong
Traditional news giant Time now publishes the Top 10 Everything including the Top 10 Things We Learned about Parenting. The good news, I think, most items either focus on a recent study or at least include a fresh statistic or two. The bad news, it’s a tutorial in not-quite-right reporting from start to finish. Nothing in recent memory better exemplifies poor science writing than this single paragraph, a confused and confusing discussion of a provocative study of questionable scientific and practical value:
8. Size Matters in Men, But Not in the Way You Might Expect.
And while we’re on that topic, a new study revealed recently that testicle size plays a role in whether or not a guy is an involved dad, but this is one time less is more: the smaller the family jewels, the better the family man. There’s a law of diminishing returns at work here, the greater the semen output in each ejaculation, the less engaged the dad. Researchers couldn’t say whether the testes size caused the difference or whether the act of becoming a dad caused the testicles to shrink in men who were diverting their attention from mating to fathering.
Forget the semen, mating, and diminishing returns, none were measured in this study or clearly explained here and this vague evolutionary talk, however impressive, distracts from the rest of the mess.
Look at the familiar confusion of correlation and causation. We first learn “size matters” and “testicle size plays a role in whether or not a guy is an involved dad,” but then we are warned it’s not clear whether testicle size caused differences in nurturing…or the reverse. Actually it should have been the reverse – becoming an involved dad shrinks the gonads (not the mere “act of becoming a dad”). This lack of nuance obscures the whole point of the study, to test one theory for why some fathers take an active interest in their children’s lives and others don’t.
Whether this confusion arises from carelessness, a tight deadline, a tight word limit, a misunderstanding of scientific findings, or a combination of these factors, it characterizes too much of the parenting media today. It’s a roll call of bad behavior from the implied causation, the unclear terms, the unclear links (e.g., between large semen output and absent fathering), the ambiguous evolutionary references, the sensationalism, wow, it’s all there and I even omitted the bit about height and flaccid penis size. It's only missing a few other usual suspects like dramatic risks (e.g., 200 percent more aggressive behavior, 4-fold increase in obesity) or my personal fave, a researcher expressing surprise at his or her own findings.
What is the Parenting Media today?
If the above lists are any indication, it covers a wide spectrum of sources and content. It includes the serious, remote medical experts with their specialized and accurate knowledge of limited appeal and use to most parent; the rare science-trained parenting writer who thoughtfully presents recent discoveries in a more engaging and still nuanced manner; the large parenting websites with a calculated balance of pop culture and not too much science that reach a large audience; and the news/newish organizations that attempt to do everything and along with the nuanced pieces also manage to muck up the science news especially when it comes to studies related to children.
My wish for 2014? More nuanced, accurate and not confusing evidenced-based parenting news and advice that won’t lose parents half-way through to email, Facebook, or Candy Crush. Is that too much to ask? What’s your wish?
Note: I only reviewed lists that tried to some degree try to highlight notable empirical evidence. For instance, though well-written and popular, I didn’t include the annual list of memorable parenting posts at Motherlode, the New York Times’ parenting column. For the record, I couldn’t help but notice only a third included any whiff of a statistic.