In honor of students starting school, here are five frequently repeated myths about kids and why they are (to use a term from my school days) "totally bogus."

1. Hormones in milk cause early puberty. While it's true that the dairy industry shoots up cows with bovine growth hormone, and in many cases synthetic growth hormone, there is no credible evidence that either catalyzes early puberty in human children. The dairy industry has used natural bovine growth hormone for decades, far before this claim started being made. The FDA tests milk from cows pumped up with natural bovine hormone and synthetic hormone and has concluded that the end product is exactly the same.

In addition, most of the hormones are destroyed during pasteurization. Whatever is left is broken down in stomach acid, though it wouldn't matter even if this weren't true because bovine growth hormone is species specific. Why, then, have girls since the early 1980s been reaching puberty sooner? Nobody knows for certain, but blaming it on milk doesn't stand the evidence test. The latest research is pointing more and more to rising childhood obesity as a possible cause, but that's one theory among many.

2. Television causes childhood ADHD. Television has always been an easy target for those trying to pin the wrongs of society on an available villain. When the modern diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder started picking up steam, television was immediately targeted as the culprit behind this "new" diagnosis. (It's not new at all. The first diagnosis was made by a doctor in 1902, but back then it was called "Defect Moral Control Disorder." His diagnosis focused on behavior in children that was "aggressive, defiant, resistant to discipline, excessively emotional , and passionate." How much TV were they watching in 1902, I wonder?)

The more recent ADHD argument--spawned in the 1990s amidst an explosion of funding to study the disorder--got a boost from a 2004 study claiming that children diagnosed with ADHD at age 7 watched more TV at an earlier age than those who watched less (accompanied by a melodramatic claim by one of the researchers that "TV rewires children's brains"). A New Zealand study in 2007 showed a similar link.

Both of these studies, and others using the same methodology, suffer from several fatal flaws: (1) they attempt to correlate TV viewing and ADHD diagnosis in one direction (TV=ADHD), while ignoring the very real possibility that kids genetically predisposed to ADHD tend to watch more TV; (2) they rely on parental reporting of their kids' TV viewing habits, a notoriously inaccurate way of gathering data; (3) they cannot effectively isolate TV viewing from other variables that may or may not underlie an ADHD diagnosis-among them, genetic predisposition; and (4) correlation is not causation, and this warning should especially be heeded when it comes to complex multi-variable analysis that makes even correlation difficult to demonstrate.

If ADHD is increasing in children, what's the cause? Nobody knows for certain, and since the debate about ADHD diagnosis itself is anything but settled it's not even clear what the parameters of the investigation should look like. We also don't know why asthma rates among children are increasing or, as discussed above, why girls are reaching puberty earlier--but TV likely isn't to blame for those issues, either.

3. Youth violence is increasing because kids are playing violent video games. This is an easy one to dismantle because there really isn't a shred of evidence supporting it. Youth violence has actually been steadily decreasing since the early 1990s. Between 1994 and 2004, all violent crimes perpetrated by juveniles fell by an average of 49%, the lowest level since 1980. Murder arrests in particular dropped 70%. Since the majority of violent games have hit the market in the last 15-20 years, if anything the correlation is between more violent game play and less juvenile violence.

4. Kids are becoming more self-centered and apathetic. Totally false. The trend is going in the exact opposite direction. High school kids today are far more likely to volunteer their time to nonprofit causes than kids 20 years ago. 80% of today's high school students participate in civic volunteer activities, up from around 30% in 1990. And if you think they are doing it just to "pad their resumes," then I'd have to ask why kids 20 years ago weren't just as resume conscious? (hint: they were)

5. Kids are growing up faster these days. Not really. The speed of media and communications is much faster, but the kids using these technologies aren't being forced to experience the stresses of adulthood any faster than kids a half century ago. If anything, kids now might be growing up slower--if your definition of "growing up" includes rough and tumble self sufficiency. That's not a slight against kids at all, just an observation that kids in the U.S. today are not working in sweat shops, or picketing for fairer child labor laws, or taking care of the family farm. The childhood "cushion" of today is comparatively well in place.

Copyright 2010 David DiSalvo

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